FOR the last four years, Michael McGrath has had to find a way to criticise the flaws in Fine Gael’s budgets while taking credit for Fianna Fáil’s input.
“It was a very awkward position to be in,” he admitted while reflecting on the results of last weekend’s election.
In 2016, he was one of the people tasked with breaking the deadlock of a hung Dáil and finding a path to government.
In 2020, he’ll have the same headache again if he’s part of Fianna Fáil’s negotiating team.
One thing he can’t see happening is a return to confidence and supply, which he blames for Fianna Fáil’s stagnation in the polls over the last four years.
“I think the confidence and supply agreement over four years resulted in us largely seen as being similar to Fine Gael.
“We were not seen representing major change from the Fine Gael-led government.
“A lot of people saw us as being more or less in government, when we really weren’t. That was repeated constantly in the media and I think it did make it difficult for us to carve out a distinct identity over the last few years because our opposition was really blunted by the fact that we could never, as we saw it, bring down the government because of the national interest being at stake on the Brexit question,” he said.
When Fianna Fáil made that deal in 2016 it was out of duty — the country needed a stable government and this was the only achievable way — but it was also a calculated political move that didn’t pay off for either of the two parties involved.
Though Mr McGrath maintains Fianna Fáil did what was right — allowing the country to have a government and supporting it through the threat of Brexit — it’s not something he sees any party eager to do again.
“I think parties will be very reluctant to go down that road in the future. You’re seen as being almost in government. You get grief for the things the government doesn’t do well.
“Then you’re not really seen as the party that can deliver change when things don’t go well.
“I found it a frustrating experience over the last four years,” he said.
As negotiations for a new government begin, the country is in an even closer deadlock than 2016.
Fianna Fáil is ahead of Sinn Féin by just one seat — 38 to 37 — and that’s down to the automatic re-election of the Ceann Comhairle, Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ó Fearghaíl.
But with Fine Gael and its 35 TDs effectively ruling itself out of government, the arithmetic means that no majority can be formed without involving both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.
That’s a path that Mr McGrath and many other Fianna Fáil TDs are reluctant to go down.
“There are no easy answers here. If you want a majority government, there are only a few numerical options there. But then the question of compatibility on policy comes into it as well.
“I come at this from the perspective as a finance spokesperson — as someone who, I believe, understands the economy and what makes it tick — and I have enormous concerns about what Sinn Féin want to do with our economy, with our tax system, and I don’t believe it’s a road we should go down,” he said.
He said that Sinn Féin may stay outside of government by choice too, complicating negotiations even further. “It is a complex result. I know Sinn Féin are saying they want to form a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, so let’s see how far that goes and what kind of numbers they can get to support that. I don’t see the numbers there for that option.
“You do have to question whether they want to go into government at this point. They are a party that is very tactical and I think they see themselves ultimately leading a government in the Republic and they’d love the springboard of opposition for the next few years to prepare for that,” he said.
“But we’re all going to have to figure this in the days ahead and there will be an obligation to arrive at a government at some point in the next few weeks,” he added.
For Mr McGrath personally, this was a difficult election.
After he topped the poll in 2016 ahead of his own party leader, the press and the public alike saw his seat as more than safe.
Having scraped over the line in the past, that’s a narrative he never bought, and he believes his fourth-place finish this time proves that.
He said that in a different constituency, the Green Party might have knocked Fianna Fáil out, but believes his work on the ground saved him.
“I’m under no illusion that if I didn’t have a strong personal record and an enormous amount of work done I would be in serious trouble.
“There is nothing certain. People have been saying to me all along that I would do very well and my seat was safe. But politics is a very fickle and a volatile business to be in,” he said.