ALTHOUGH the count is long over, the dust has yet to fully settle after last weekend’s Cork City Council elections.
Over the last few days, the political groups have been meeting internally and with each other to secure an agreement on how the chamber will work in the coming years.
The next lord mayor is set to be elected on June 7, so there are still a few days of votes being traded and backroom deals being done, but the pieces are starting to fall into place.
The failure of the plebiscite on direct elections to find a first citizen means there are now five mayoral terms to be doled out, but councillors will also want agreements on committee appointments and support of the annual budgets.
In a chamber of 31 councillors, the magic number for a deal is 16, but a few extra votes will be needed to insulate against any rebel councillors.
Over the years, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have dominated the chamber, usually with the backing of Labour.
Between them, Fianna Fáil’s eight and Fine Gael’s seven are one off a majority, meaning they will have to go to the smaller groups to make up the numbers.
Though they could offer a year in the mayor’s office to a single Independent to make up the numbers, there are fears such a deal wouldn’t be secure.
Within all parties, Fine Gael in particular, there are concerns about friction between Fianna Fáil councillors Tony Fitzgerald and Kenneth O’Flynn over who gets to run for Billy Kelleher’s Dáil seat should he be elected to the European Parliament, as looks likely.
If tensions rise too high as the party decides on its ticket, Fianna Fáil could easily be down a vote in the chamber, undoing any simple majority pact.
However, sources in the council suggest at least two Independents are “willing to do business”, on the condition of a few plum appointments, including a year with the lord mayor’s chain. That would create an 18-vote pact, insulated against any political wobbles and enough to squeeze out the smaller parties.
Nothing is agreed just yet, though, and both of the large parties are looking to speak with all the other groupings before anything is finalised.
For both of the big parties, Fianna Fáil in particular, the support for the budget will be a redline issue.
Over the last few years, the council used the D’Hondt system to fill different positions, including that of lord mayor. That system doles out the various prizes proportionately, based on the number of councillors in each group and the total number of first preferences they got across the city.
However, it led to serious tension at times, especially around the budget.
The other issue with D’Hondt is that the small parties will all want their turn in the lord mayor’s chair.
Though it’s not a redline issue, Fine Gael and especially Fianna Fáil want two years each with the mayor’s chain, and would have trouble signing up to a proportional system that would give them one each, and divide the other three between Sinn Féin, the Greens, and the Independents. With Fianna Fáil’s Kenneth O’Flynn, Fergal Dennehy,, and John Sheehan and Fine Gael’s Joe Kavanagh and Deirdre Forde all said to be in the mix, those two parties will want as many years in the chair as they can get.
However, if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can’t muster up a strong majority from the Independent benches, they will have to talk to the Greens, Sinn Féin, and Labour, knowing they could never strike a deal with left-wing councillors Fiona Ryan of Solidarity and Ted Tynan of the Workers’ Party.
For both Sinn Féin and the Greens, it’s D’Hondt or nothing; a straight pact is off the table.
Although Sinn Féin did well out of D’Hondt, the budget was an issue. The party voted against the first three budgets of the last council, and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael won’t enter any deal again unless the budget is secure, feeling that they propped up Sinn Féin councillors in the past while allowing them have their cake and eat it on the budget.
As sources in the party put it, councillors can either back the budget or vote themselves out of power, as an administrator would be appointed by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to run the council directly if an agreement could not be found.
Sinn Féin, however, is unwilling to sign up to five budgets, sight unseen.
Being blocked out of a pact would suit Sinn Féin, too, as it would give them space to go on the attack against Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil from the outside.
The budget may not be as much of a problem for the Greens, but they want to see a more formal agreement in City Hall, with parties not just signing up to a system for parsing out appointments, but a ‘civic charter’, effectively a programme for government at a local level. They want to work with the other parties to put together a list of common goals, with everyone agreeing to back them.
Though Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are open to talking about that, the exact goals and how they would be paid for over the next five years could cause issues.
Labour’s John Maher is a one-man party in City Hall, but his vote could make the difference in any arrangement.
While he has been approached by a number of parties in recent days, sources in his party say he has yet to enter serious negotiations, and that he won’t join a pact or any other type of agreement just for the sake of a political appointment. He is said to be open to any arrangement, but his price will be action on key issues in his Cork City North-West ward, such as housing
Anything could happen over the course of the next few days, but it’s starting to look like the most probable outcome will be an arrangement between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and a few Independents, who saw how successful Mick Finn’s last term was when he was willing to play ball.
Though the various groupings say they are open to working with anyone, competing interests, political ambition, and realpolitik could mean the end of D’Hondt and a return to the pact politics of the past.