Published: Western People, 5 June 2007
In the end, the calculation was simple enough. Voters were just too terrified to trade what they had for seemingly vague promises that so much more might be achieved. Although they thought health, they voted wealth.
But at least the contest was much closer this time, and as soon as the campaign moved from the question of the Taoiseach’s past personal finances to issues which people were thinking about for the future, the strengths and weaknesses of the two alternatives came into sharper focus.
At this stage, Bertie Ahern now looks like the hot favourite for another five years in Government Buildings, though Enda Kenny is still clinging to the hope that Independents and the remnants of the Progressive Democrats will rally to his side. With only two deputies in the 30th Dáil, and having had their hands on the levers of power for so long, that seems unlikely.
Like Fianna Fáil in 1995, which believed the Rainbow Government led by John Bruton would implode within months, Mr Kenny is banking on the possibility that the Taoiseach’s first preference for an arrangement involving Fianna Fáil, the PDs and some Independents could come unstuck quickly.
However, Mr Ahern won’t get into anything that smells of instability, so the likely outcome is that Fine Gael and Labour will have to try and forge a coherent opposition bloc that harries and hassles the government at every turn, and works night and day to unsettle and discomfort the Independents.
Besides, the numbers give the Taoiseach more options.
With 78 deputies returned for Fianna Fáil and two for the PDs, any three of the five Independents gives him a majority, albeit a wafer-thin margin. The Greens, with their six seats, would give this combination a comfortable position.
Mr Kenny, on the other hand, has it all to do. Unlike the Taoiseach, who doesn’t need to talk to Sinn Féin, the Mayo man has little choice but to embrace them warmly if he is to have a chance of leapfrogging Fianna Fáil.
At best, Fine Gael, Labour, PDs, Greens and Independents could muster 84 seats, which means the king-makers would be Sinn Féin. There would have to be seats at the cabinet table for all these parties, and that would severely limit Fine Gael’s ability to be a driving force in government.
The biggest dilution of power for Fianna Fáil would be if it had to share it with the Labour Party, which would be able to insist on as many as five places at cabinet and the same number in the junior ministerial ranks.
While that sort of smash-and-grab would give Mr Ahern an unassailable majority, it would annoy ambitious ministers and backbenchers in the larger party, who would see their prospects for promotion disappear before their eyes. In this situation, all sorts of odd things might start happening, which would sour the atmosphere and threaten the government.
Talking with the devil you know (PDs), the devil that isn’t asking for the earth (Independents), and the devil whose fondest dream is to save it (Greens) is an altogether easier prospect for the king of the dealmakers.
The PDs are now struggling to maintain a distinctive identity, if for no other reason than the practicalities mean the party will no longer qualify for public funding. Yet, even in defeat and decimation, they could well exert an even greater influence on events than their numbers would suggest.
Mary Harney has never made any secret of her desire to finish the job she started in the health portfolio. What was interesting about the day of the count was how soon people in Fianna Fáil, particularly at grass roots level, began to talk openly and positively about precisely that possibility.
At 54, Ms Harney will be conscious that her best chance of leaving an indelible print on health policy is in a Fianna Fáil-led administration. The question for her is whether she can do this inside or outside Fianna Fáil.
Assuming she takes the health portfolio again, she is likely to have a fairly free hand driving the reform programme. On several occasions during the election campaign, senior Fianna Fáil figures spoke approvingly of her stance on controversial issues, like hospital co-location, even though many of their canvassers tried to distance themselves from it on the doorsteps.
Although Finian McGrath has stated his opposition to the co-location policy, what isn’t yet clear is whether this rejection is outright or more nuanced. If he could secure a commitment for extra public beds for his local hospital, Beaumont, he might well be persuaded to see the other side of the co-location proposal which is generally ignored: the fact that it would create an extra 1,000 public beds, as well as close to 1,000 private beds.
Beverley Flynn is now strongly placed to deliver in a big way for Castlebar. Given the vote she received, it’s only a matter of time before her future comes up for consideration once again.
If the outstanding issues around her failed libel action against RTÉ can be settled in the near future, she may rejoin the fold sooner than many think.
While this would unsettle some in the party, its pragmatism will see the that advantages of going into the next election with two seats in Mayo in the bag, and every prospect of reclaiming ground lost to Fine Gael.