By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The shape of the new Irish government is being considered at top-level meetings this week as the taoiseach and tanaiste consider the strategic implications of different alternatives with colleagues and senior advisors.
After voters last Friday gave ringing endorsements to the outgoing coalition with seat boosts for both Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats, Bertie Ahern missed out on the “Holy Grail” of 84 seats to give him an overall majority in the 29th Dail.
With FF at 80 seats (pending a recount in Cork) after winning 41.5 percent first preferences, a 2.2 percent increase on the 1997 result, the taoiseach now has several options.
The most likely is a renewed FF/PD alliance as this seems to be the mandate given by the electorate.
However, if the price of a new coalition is too high, he can go-it-alone as a single-party government with the support of independent deputies who share the FF gene having previously been members of the party.
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Ahern’s preferred option is another alliance with the PDs. But PD leader Mary Harney has confounded pundits to secure eight seats and may put forward what FF would regard as “unreasonable demands.”
With her extra voting muscle, she is expected to insist on more power in any new coalition arrangement, including extra ministerial posts.
That could prove a problem for Ahern, who has a swollen backbench packed with ambitious TDs who will also have an eye on a state car and ministerial seal to take home.
However, the loss of FF deputy leader and Public Enterprise Minister Mary O’Rourke and the job of Ceann Comhairle in the new Dail give new opportunities for promotion.
The taoiseach could also consider a deal with the Greens, which has tripled their strength to six TDs. That is regarded as unlikely as he would have major policy differences with them on taxation, the economy, the Nice Treaty and other issues.
That Ahern has so many options is the true measure of FF’s victory. The party is now hugely dominant and faces no cohesive power bloc as an alternative government.
Instead, there are a series of potential handmaidens that could be wooed into FF-dominated coalitions in the future — particularly if the IRA is disbanded and Sinn Fein, with five seats, could be considered for government.
Ahern refused to be drawn into speculation.
“They are things for another day” he said. “It is a long way to June 6 [when the new Dail first meets]. The first obligation for us . . . is to give good government, good service and stability.”
Harney was also not making any quick decisions about entering a new coalition.
“It may well be that there are other options,” she said. “There are a lot of independents elected. It may well be that Fianna Fail will decide to do a deal with some of those Independents.”
Whatever the final outcome, Ahern will be the first outgoing incumbent to win a second consecutive term of office since Taoiseach Jack Lynch in 1969.
The astonishing outcome transformed the political landscape and will lead to a new-look Dail with a fractured opposition, strengthened smaller radical parties and a sharper edge to proceedings.
Fine Gael is traumatized and facing into a leadership election after it suffered a meltdown with its worst showing since 1948. Its vote fell 5.5 percent, to 22.5 percent, and lost more than 20 of its 54 TDs.
Michael Noonan, who only took over the leadership last year from former Taoiseach John Bruton, quickly accepted full responsibility and said his position was “not tenable.”
The Labor Party also fared poorly, with its vote down 2.1 percent to 10.8 percent. It was squeezed in the center-left by the greater radicalism of the Greens and Sinn Fein and left with 21 TDs (pending a recount in Wicklow).
With the Greens up one point to 4 percent to take six seats, it meant the possible alternative coalition government limped in with a total of 37.8 percent support.
Boosted by U.S. donations, Sinn Fein almost trebled its national vote, to 6.5 percent, and has power-housed to hold five seats compared to its single outgoing deputy.
The protest vote has also grown. Many voters obviously trusted neither government nor opposition and plumped for single-issue independent candidates who won victories on a huge scale and may hold as many as 14 seats.
About six independent “health” TDs will enter Leinster house with a focus on disability issues, local hospitals, waiting lists and the creaking care service.