by Frank Schnittger
Tue Jun 16th, 2020 at 11:44:34 AM EST
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Caroline Quinn/Damien Eagers/Leon Farrell/PA Wire
The Fianna Fail (FF), Fine Gael (FG) and Green parties have agreed a 50,000 word, 126 page programme for government which will now be put to the party memberships of FF and the Greens and an electoral college within FG for final approval. Approval is expected in FF and FG, but the two thirds majority of members required by the Green party constitution may prove a more difficult hurdle. Hence the ? in the title.
The document is heavily aspirational in parts, but broadly reflects Green party policy priorities including a commitment to an average 7 per cent per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030 to be achieved by a ban on new oil/gas exploration, termination of a plan for an imported fracked gas storage centre, the retrofitting of 500,000 homes to make them more energy efficient, a ban on new petrol or diesel cars from 2030, a focus of resources on public transport, cycle and walkways at the expense of roads, and a renewed focus on renewable energy sources.
Overall, it is remarkable the degree to which the Greens, with 7% electoral support, have managed to set the national policy agenda. FG's contribution seems to be limited to maintaining current tax rates with the promise of some future tax reductions "if circumstances allow", and FF, the party with the most seats, seems to have had hardly any impact on the policy agenda at all. This perhaps reflects the degree to which the traditional conservative parties have run out of ideas, other than perhaps to attempt to return to the status quo ante the Covid-19 pandemic.
FF have been quietly desperate to get into government at almost any cost. Their Leader, Michael Martin is the last survivor of the disastrous FF Greens government which guaranteed junior bank bond holders their money back while the economy crashed all around them. This is his last shot at redemption, and he is due to become Taoiseach until Dec. 15th. 2022 at which point he will hand the role back to Leo Varadkar.
The other reason for FF's desperation is that they have imploded in the polls since the February general election (from 24% to 14%) while FG have soared from 21% to 37% due to a perceived good handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed Leo Varadkar, whose personal approval ratings have soared from 30% to 75%, must be ruing his decision to call a February election, and quite relaxed about the possibility of the Greens membership rejecting this deal, as that would give him the excuse he needs to call another election.
The same opinion poll
has Green voters strongly in favour of entering government, with 31 per cent saying they should do the best deal they could, and a further 61 per cent saying they should enter government if their demands on climate action were met. Thus the two thirds majority all depends on whether most Green voters regard the document as meeting their climate action demands.
Green party voters are not the same as Green party members, however, with the party having experienced a large influx of younger, more left leaning new members in recent times, so it will be interesting to see which way they vote. Support for the deal in FF and FG will also not be unanimous, with a significant rump in FF led by traditionalist Éamon Ó Cuív favouring a coalition with Sinn Fein (SF) instead.
Many in FG will also have mixed feeling abut the deal, preferring to take their chances with a more appreciative electorate in August/September should this deal be voted down. However the electoral college in FG which will make the decision is composed of elected TDs, senators, county counsellors and elected party officials who may be more election averse than the general membership, and who may feel they have to show loyalty to their leadership. There is also no guarantee that the post pandemic bounce in FG's ratings will ultimately be reflected in a new general election.
I would not be surprised, however, if there was a groundswell of popular opposition to the deal amongst ordinary members of FF and FG, aggrieved at what they might see as the disproportionate influence of the Greens on the policy programme. In FF's case some have a preference for coalition with SF, and in FG's case a preference to leverage their increased popularity in the polls and improving their seat count in a new general election.
Overall, I expect the new deal to be ratified by all three parties and for the new government to stay the course for the next 4 years, but as ever, nothing is certain in politics. The challenges for the next few years will test the mettle of any new government. To the costs of the Covid-19 pandemic must be added the costs of a hard Brexit, global corporate tax reform, global recession and restrictions on trade which will impact disproportionately on a small open economy like Ireland.
Added to this will be the increased expectations of an electorate who have gotten used to a high level of borrowing and social supports, a universal health care system, and much increased government spending and intervention. There are also a lot of vested interests which will have to be addressed - millionaire meat factory owners, property developers, global corporates with large bases in Ireland, the medical, legal, landlord, and agricultural lobbies who normally support FF and FG and who will not be happy with may of the changes that will be needed to meet public expectations and the promises in the programme for government.
It will not be an easy ride...