So, eight weeks since the general election, there is still no new Government. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael remain in contact with each other. The expectation is that – one day – there will be a new government involving both of them.
However, to have a stable Dáil majority they need another party to join them – the common wisdom is that recruiting a group of independents to back them would be to unstable. So far the Green Party, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats have said No.
Now, as the Byzantine Seanad count continues, we are about to enter the unprecedented situation in which we have a functioning government, answering to a parliament which is believed to be unable to pass legislation.
This is because the new Seanad must be completed by 11 members nominated by the new Taoiseach elected by the Dáil after a General Election. The problem is there is no new Taoiseach, just the old one Leo Varadkar. He cannot nominate the eleven Senators. The Government says that in these circumstances the Oireachtas can pass no legislation, although some lawyers disagree.
The post-election pressure for change has eased dramatically as a result of the Covid 19 crisis. There is a broad view that the Taoiseach and his key Ministers know what they are doing, that the public have bought into the Government plan, and that change could be unsettling and even dangerous. The perception that the Government is performing well has emboldened some in Fine Gael to suggest that in any coalition with Fianna Fáil the Taoiseach and key Ministers such as Simon Harris, Paschal Donohoe and Simon Coveney should remain in place at this point. This is deeply unattractive to Fianna Fáil.
There are some in Fianna Fáil arguing that they should be in no rush to change Government. Rather they could allow this current administration limp on until the crisis abates, and then negotiate a meaningful change of government.
However, there are a few possible developments that could force the hands of both. Firstly, within days the Government will publish its monthly Fiscal Monitor and this will show that taxation revenues have simply collapsed. It will show that the country is headed for a big deficit in 2020. It will need to borrow substantial sums, and to do that it must convince markets that it has a government capable of taking politically difficult decisions. For this we need a new, stable government.
Secondly, it might need to pass legislation. There are people already questioning detail of the emergency measures passed by the Oireachtas last week. If there was a view that these needed amending or that new measures were required, we would need a functioning Oireachtas.
For an FF/FG combination to be stable, one of the smaller parties has to blink. Green Party TDs, almost all of them elected for the first-time last month, believe their agenda will not be reflected adequately in a government dominated by the two big parties. The Social Democrats have been adamant that they will not enter such a government. And while there are different views in the Labour Party about appeals to them to go into government in the national interest, the predominant view is that they tried that in 2011 and it led to the virtual destruction of the party.
There is also the difficulty about even contemplating a five-year programme for Government. In six months’ time, the fiscal situation will be different than anyone could have imagined a couple of months ago. It would seem impossible to write a programme for government based on a reliable understanding of the fiscal situation over the next five years.
How can you take a five-year view of the health service right now, or make projections as to the nature of the housing market over that time? What will the economic shutdown do in relation to Ireland’s and the world’s emissions targets? A Government grand plan does not seem possible.
So, one option being canvassed among a number of parties is to allow the temporary nature of the current situation to continue. If required, the current administration could be pragmatically re-elected by the Dáil, on the understanding that the Dáil would no longer support it when the crisis fades. This would allow the selection of new senators, and the passage of legislation when required. It would allow for a supplementary budget when required. But it would postpone a decision as to the long-term shape of the Government that is yet to emerge from the February election.
In the meantime, the outgoing government, supposedly a lame-duck administration, gets on with managing the most extraordinary public-health, economic and societal crisis ever seen in any of our lifetimes. Crisis moments can bring out the best in people. Future historians will judge whether this is one of those moments but at this point, despite the absence of a long-term government, the extraordinary collaboration between politicians, officials and public seems to be working very well
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