Last week I asked “What next for the Soldiers of Destiny?” and since then, at near break neck pace, the path to government has become clearer. The Leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have agreed to enter detailed negotiations, as equal partners. The ongoing national emergency posed by COVID-19 has provided the political fig leaf to cover their respective blushes. No doubt that fig leaf will grow into a full suit of clothes. However what may come of these talks is not the purpose of this article, rather the mechanics of how such an agreement may be ratified is. We are still quite a distance from the finish line.
From a Fianna Fáil perspective, there are two main hoops that Micheál Martin needs to jump through – support of the Parliamentary Party and then ratification by the wider party. The initial litmus test for the draft Programme for Government will be Fianna Fáil TD’s. A select few will be actively involved in the negotiations, with policy issues being hammered out and concerns being papered over. In addition to these items, there is the issue of the number of ministers each party can nominate. Whatever that number is (and I would expect it to be around six), Micheál Martin will have to lose two thirds of his current front bench. That is a significant chop. One can expect there will be more than a few disgruntled TDs, although there will be a swathe of junior ministries available to console the unlucky ones. As a retired Oireachtas member from Roscommon was fond of saying, when appointing ministers, it is always a case of “appoint, and disappoint”.
Assuming a palatable deal is struck, Martin has to be able to command the confidence of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party first and foremost. If the agreement sinks at this point, coalition with Fine Gael, and probably the thirty third Dáil, are done and dusted. Even if he does bring a majority of his colleagues with him, the minority are unlikely to roll over and take the new arrangements quietly. Cue the much vaunted special Ard Fheis.
The special Ard Fheis is very much an unknown quantity. It was an innovation inserted into Fianna Fáil’s constitution, the Córú agus Rialacha, as part of the post 2011 “Renewal”. The rule in question stipulates that where a coalition is recommended by the Leader, the draft Programme for Government must be presented to members to vote on at a special Ard Fheis convened for that purpose, prior to Fianna Fáil entering government. The Programme for Government needs only a simple majority of 50% plus one to be approved. On paper this all looks straightforward; in practice it could prove extremely divisive and messy.
Every paid up member of at least one year’s standing attending the meeting would have the opportunity to vote aye or nay to the proposal, and the special Ard Fheis itself would provide a very visible platform for those against the deal. The worst case scenario is a Paddy Hillery vs Kevin Boland-esque shouting match, though I suspect there is not the appetite for this on either side. That said, going in with Fine Gael will evoke deep and passionate disgust in many Fianna Fáilers. For the deal to be successfully adopted, elected representatives would need to be relied upon to shepherd their people to the event and encourage votes in favour of the deal. There has already been some chest beating on social media, with youth wing Ógra and some local units coming out strongly against the idea of coalescing with Fine Gael. Equally there have been individual members crying foul at the prospect. I have heard and seen essentially no Fianna Fáil voices publicly calling for this coalition bar Micheál Martin. While the loudest voices in the room or on social media are not always the majority, it cannot but be a cause of concern to the leadership that were a deal put to such a vote it may fail. So perhaps this merry dance is all in vain?
Perhaps not. There is another, more controversial option available. Comment on the ratification process in the media and elsewhere has focussed on a national powwow, bringing together thousands of Fianna Fáil members in what could be a showdown of epic proportions. Returning to COVID-19, it may not be feasible to hold such an event on public health grounds. Ostensibly this public health emergency is also driving the coalition talks. On that basis, a work around could be deployed that might otherwise be unacceptable – the Ard Chomhairle amending the rules.
A wit in Fine Gael once quipped that the Fianna Fáil Ard Chomhairle should be called the “Committee of 10,000”. Admittedly it is a large body as committees go, drawing membership from constituency delegates, councillors’ representatives, honorary officers, Ógra, and members elected at the Ard Fheis. It is nominally the supreme decision making body of Fianna Fáil when the Ard Fheis is not in session, and has significant functions in principle. The various sub committees are appointed by the leader, and so a plumb spot is dependent as much on goodwill as merit. What happens at meetings is confidential, but I will make two observations regarding it. Firstly, there are many strong and principled delegates who are unafraid to speak their minds and who give very frank feedback to the party leadership; there are those who listen more than speak; and there are those who seem content to be vocal sycophants. Secondly, the Ard Chomhairle as a whole is very loyal and deferential to the leader. Micheál Martin leads by consensus on most issues, and voting is rarely required. Therein lies his opportunity.
Buried in the depths of the Rialacha is the provision that the Ard Chomhairle may, by two thirds majority vote, amend the rules on a temporary basis. Were Micheál wily enough, or desperate enough, this mechanism could be used to negate the requirement for a ratifying vote and deliver a Fianna Fáil led government for the first time in almost a decade. It might be Uachtarán Fhianna Fáil’s only viable avenue if he wants to be Taoiseach.
James T. Doyle was President of Ógra Fianna Fáil and a member of Fianna Fáil’s Ard Chomhairle (National Executive) from 2016 to 2018