By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Negotiating teams from Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats are hammering out a new five-year coalition deal and program for government before the first sitting of the new Dail on June 6.
After a marathon count was completed in the five-seat Wicklow constituency at the weekend, the last seat went to outgoing independent TD Mildred Fox, who managed to fight off a challenge from Labor’s Nicky Kelly by just 19 votes in the 10th count.
A loyal supporter of the outgoing minority FF/PD coalition since 1997, Fox’s victory strengthens the taoiseach’s options.
Ahern, with 81 TDs, is now presiding over the same number of seats as both FF and the PDs had after the 1997 general election.
If the price of brokering a new coalition with the eight PDs is too high, or if the parties fall out in the future, Ahern has the alternative fallback position of going it alone as a minority administration and cutting a deal for support from independents.
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There are at least five likely independents on the opposition benches he could target.
A Fianna Fail spokesman said communications with the independents were being kept “warm.”
The May 17 election has left Fine Gael with 31 TDs, Labor 21, Greens 6, Sinn Fein 5, and Socialist Party 1, while there are 13 independents.
On Monday, Ahern and Tanaiste Mary Harney held preliminary discussions and there was optimism a deal could be agreed by the weekend.
The PDs are expected to seek a scaled down “Bertie Bowl” stadium, a commitment to tax cuts, privatization of a number of state companies, two senior ministers and two juniors.
The Fianna Fail negotiating team are Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen, Environment Minister Noel Dempsey and Chief Whip Seamus Brennan.
The PD team are Attorney General Michael McDowell, Laois-Offaly TD and former farm leader Tom Parlon, and party chairman John Minihan.
Whatever administration emerges, Ahern will become the first taoiseach to have achieved a second consecutive term of office since Jack Lynch in 1969.
While the coalition brokering is under way, the opposition parties have been sorting out their affairs. Sinn Fein has made Caoimhghin O Caolain its parliamentary party leader, while Fine Gael has been emerging from the trauma of its devastating losses. It will discuss future strategy and the succession stakes at a two-day meeting. Carlow-Kilkenny TD Phil Hogan, a former party chairman, is the first person to throw his hat into the ring to follow Michael Noonan, who remains on in a caretaker role.
No decision has been made about whether it will be the overall party membership or the parliamentary party alone that will decide on who the new leader will be.
In the meantime, the election for the new Seanad is also under way.
Ahern appointed outgoing Public Enterprise Minister Mary O’Rourke, who
lost her seat in the election, and party secretary Martin Mackin, to be new
members of the Seanad.
They will fill seats left vacant by two members of the Seanad, who were
elected TDs. O’Rourke, who is also deputy leader of FF, is tipped to become
the next cathaoirleach of the Seanad.