Best of frenemies: Campaign focus on grand coalition

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 Best of frenemies: Campaign focus on grand coalition

Leo Varadkar joined a “circle of gratitude” in the meditation room of Castleknock Community School as he remained on the more comfortable territory of his home patch.

Asked what he was grateful for, he referred to a letter written by Michael Collins during the War of Independence which is on the wall of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, addressed to “one of my friends – my friends are not so many”.

The Taoiseach saw a kindred spirit, telling the school girls gathered around a chart made up of cut-out hearts: “I’ve a few old friends who were friends of mine when I didn’t have so many friends. I don’t find enough time for them especially with the job I have now.”

But it was his frenemies in Fianna Fáil that were the focus of his political message of the day.

The rivalry dating back to Collins’ time was put partially aside after the last election for the purpose of a relationship of convenience, whereby Fianna Fáil acquiesced to keep a Fine Gael minority government in power through the confidence and supply deal.

Varadkar is suggesting taking that further, arguing that the two parties can and maybe should work even more closely, through a grand coalition.

“If the numbers fall a certain way and the only way to form a stable government is for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to cooperate and come together, I think that is the responsible thing to do for the country,” he told reporters afterwards.

It was something he had introduced just eight minutes into the election debate against Michéal Martin on Virgin Media One the night before, suggesting he had deliberately lobbed it in to the election agenda.

The grand coalition is not a new notion. After the inconclusive result of the 2016 general election, the then Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny offered Michéal Martin a 50:50 share of Government. It was a non-runner and something that the Fianna Fáil leader would would never have been able to sell to his party.

So why is Varadkar bringing it in to the election debate now?

For a start, it is a strategy that gives him the opportunity to tie Fianna Fáil into the current criticism of the outgoing Government’s record on health and housing.

“Fianna Fáil have been engaged with us in a confidence and supply arrangement and like to take credit for what has happened in Government when it suits them, and like to disown any involvement in Government when it doesn’t,” he said.

By suggesting they were in it together, Fianna Fáil becomes a mudguard of sorts for Fine Gael. It is exactly the sort of perception that Fianna Fáil TDs had feared from the arrangement.

But more significantly than this, the strategy undermines Fianna Fáil’s efforts to offer itself as a party of change. From the first press conference held on the first day of this campaign, Míchéal Martin has sought to sell his party as representing change, while seeking to cast Fine Gael as the party that offers “more of the same”.

In an election where opinion polls and feedback from parties on the ground suggest there is a big appetite for change, that message is a potent one. Candidates are picking up that the electorate has not quite yet decided who best represents that change.

Fianna Fáil is trying to convince them that it is the only party who can realistically offer a different Government, numerically, while Sinn Féin is arguing that it has been the real opposition over the past number of years and as such is the only party that can offer a change in policy direction.

A full day of electioneering dominated by talk of a grand coalition is something of a gift to Sinn Féin. It gave Mary Lou McDonald the perfect opportunity to state that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil “have effectively been in coalition for the last four years. It’s very clear neither want a change of government, they want more of the same”.

Varadkar himself knew how this would play out. In the run up to the last election in February 2016, he wrote  that a grand coalition would be a “shotgun marriage with Sinn Féin holding the shotgun”.

He said it would “suit Sinn Féin as potentially it would allow them to become a major opposition party. I can’t say that would be good for the country”.

His offer at this point in the campaign might send some voters in to the arms of Sinn Féin. But if that is to be the case, Fine Gael is not too worried as those votes are more likely to be lost to Fianna Fáil than Fine Gael.

Michéal Martin tried to nip any talk of grand coalition in the bud. “The people want a new government, we want a new government, that means a completely new government,” he said.

Another potential strategy here is one that is more medium term. The Taoiseach could potentially be “smoking out” some coalition options post-election.

If, for example, his party is to enter coalition talks with Sinn Féin at some point, he might first have to show his party membership that all other options have failed. In other words, it could only be contemplated after the grand coalition talks break down.

Either way, the Government formation talks are unlikely to be dull.

Going, going, gone

They might well be accused of cribbing and moaning, but no less than five economists lined up to ruin the election fun for politicians today telling the Irish Times that the old habits of auction politics have returned.

Among them, Colm McCarthy said the level of promises was “utterly insane”, while Stephen Kinsella of the University of Limerick and The Currency said it was feeding cynicism as there is little chance of these many promises ever being met.

But the political parties were having none of it today.

Thomas Byrne of Fianna Fáil said the economists were “absolutely wrong”. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald was making no apologies either. Proposals to give families and workers a break, she said, “are not auction politics, that is called building a decent society”.

We’ll see how the auctions go when the parties launch their manifestos. Fianna Fáil is first out of the traps on Friday morning.

The drugs don’t work

Michéal Martin is known for his ability to think on his feet while out canvassing and it was no different earlier when he was out and about in Dublin’s south inner city. As he addressed reporters at Fumbally Lane, a cloud of fog came from a vent in the wall of an old stone building behind him. “Is that Leo?” he asked.

On *that* awkward moment from the debate the night before, when the Taoiseach stumbled on the question of drug use, the Fianna Fáil leader said: “I’m not going down that road.”

But as he spoke to the press in his home turf of Castleknock, the Fine Gael leader was pressed for more information, specifically on whether he had taken any other sort of drugs, of the non-smoking kind.

“I am not going into any more detail. You know I’m conscious that I’m the Taoiseach … to a certain extent I’m a little bit of a role model,” he answered.

Despite his attempts to move on, it is question that is likely to persist for some time yet.

Maybe he should have been more like Alan Kelly, who once said the power itself is a drug.