Analysis: Micheál Martin in driving seat but road to Taoiseach’s office not an easy one

Analysis: Micheál Martin in driving seat but road to Taoiseach’s office not an easy one
Fine Gael Deputy leader Simon Coveney, Fianna Fáil party leader Micheal Martin and wife Mary Martin pictured at the General election 2020 count at Nemo GAA complex, Cork.Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

With the way the wind is blowing as we enter day two of counting, Micheál Martin looks like he will be in the driving seat as coalition talks begin.

But the stunning result — a three-way tie between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin — means the Dáil arithmetic will be very difficult to solve.

The results in Cork have been mirrored all over the country; Fianna Fáil is stagnating, Sinn Féin is up, and Fine Gael is down.

The quirks of this campaign — particularly Sinn Féin’s lack of candidates — means Fianna Fáil’s seat number is likely to be inflated, allowing Mr Martin to take control of talks to form a government.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being electedPhoto by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being electedPhoto by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.

Based on the probable numbers, there are only three real options: a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition, a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition, or a Fianna Fáil-led rainbow coalition. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would provide both a stable government, a few seats above a majority, and a fairly cohesive plan, given how close the two are in policy.

The big stumbling block is ceding the opposition to Sinn Féin, who would be handed a pedestal to denounce its two biggest rivals at every turn, almost certainly growing in the process and presenting an even bigger threat at the next election.

That could signal an end to the dominance of the Civil War parties, so for reasons of pure self-preservation, these best of enemies may choose to stay apart to keep the old cartel afloat.

A Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition can’t be ruled out. In the past 24 hours, Mr Martin has softened his stance on excluding Sinn Féin, saying he is a democrat that will listen to the will of the people.

But will Sinn Féin be willing to bend the knee to a Fianna Fáil taoiseach? Though the party says it is open to any party, it also says that what really matters is the programme for government. That gives it enough leeway to reject any party based on its red lines, or red lines that are set for that very purpose.

The Sinn Féin swing has been sudden and that means it is soft. By staying in opposition, Mary Lou McDonald can build on this election and prepare to lead a government.

If she goes into government with one of the establishment parties her voters voted against, she can kiss any future gains goodbye.

The last option might be the most unstable and the most uncertain, but it may be the most likely.

Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Fianna Fáil could easily do business with the leaders of the Green Party, Labour, and the Social Democrats, with 60-odd seats between them.

Buy off a few rural Independents with projects in their constituencies — think Michael Collins in Cork and the Healy-Raes in Kerry — and you could get that number up to 70. That would still leave the coalition short, but it may look to Fine Gael to return the favour and do a confidence and supply deal again, with the roles reversed.

Given the internal rules of some of the smaller parties, that arrangement could also fall at the first hurdle if average party members voted against it.

Getting Fine Gael to agree to facilitate the government is no given either, though it may be tempted by the prospect of delaying a second election where Sinn Féin could clean up. For the next few hours, all eyes will be on the final seats in constituencies, where the arithmetic of this Dáil will be finalised.

But whatever way it falls, there is no easy solution to forming a government that parties are likely to agree to.

Micheál Martin might be in the driving seat, but we have no idea where he’s driving.

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