Leo Varadkar on brink: Last chance saloon for PM before shock second Irish election

The nation went to the polls on February 8 in what Fine Gael leader Mr Varadkar hoped would hand him a clear mandate after the collapse of the confidence and supply arrangement which saw his administration propped up by rivals Fianna Fail, led by Micheal Martin. However, in a campaign overshadowed by Brexit, Mr Varadkar’s party took less than 21 percent of first-preference votes, and 35 seats, leaving it lagging behind both Fianna Fail (22.2 percent and 38 seats) and left-wingers Sinn Fein, which has historical links with the IRA, (24.5 percent and 37 seats).

Ray Bassett, former Irish ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas, said the way forward was far from clear.

Mr Varadkar, despite his insistence that he would be happy to sit on the opposition benches in Ireland’s main legislature, the Dail, may yet to forced to try to forge a deal with Mr Martin which neither has demonstrated any appetite for, Mr Bassett explained.

He added: “It looks like Mary Lou and Sinn Fein are not going to be able to get a left wing Government established as they don’t have the numbers, especially since the small Irish Labour Party have rejected the idea and want to go into Opposition.

“Since Fianna Fail will not agree to have a coalition with Sinn Fein, at least for the present, the only real option is a Government of the two Centre Right parties, supported by the Greens.”

Mr Bassett said the odds were stacked against a coalition government involving the two parties, which have dominated Irish politics for generations, with Fianna Fail traditionally opposed to partition in 1922, and Fine Gael more accepting of Northern Ireland being a part of the United Kingdom.

He explained: “There is a lot of history militating against these two parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, coming together.

“While their old Civil war animosity may have gone, for generations these parties fought elections against each other. 

“In much of rural Ireland, they were the only two parties. 

“In addition, the old Republican wing of Fianna Fail would be uncomfortable with Fine Gael, whom they believe are too antagonistic to Nationalist concerns in Northern Ireland.”

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Nevertheless, both parties were now facing the reality of Ireland’s fractured political landscape.

Mr Bassett said: “In the end, there is a large overlap in policy terms between them and there is a huge reluctance to go back to another election.”

In addition, he suggested Mr Varadkar may yet harbour ambitions to stay in Government, although not necessarily in his current post.

it will takes weeks before these reluctant suitors come together but, unless they want another election, it may be inevitable

Ray Bassett

He said: “It was interesting that Leo Varadkar said he was looking forward to leading the Opposition but left the door slightly ajar by saying he would only consider coalition with Fianna Fail ’in the last resort’.

“This may be a negotiating tactic and a signal to Fianna Fail that he would drive a hard bargain.

“However, it will takes weeks before these reluctant suitors come together but, unless they want another election, it may be inevitable.”

Speaking yesterday, Mr Varadkar insisted he would be happy with a spell in opposition.

He said: “I really want to do what I didn’t have a chance to do as Taoiseach, which is to be party leader, to be present in Fine Gael, to rebuild our party and to emphasise our identity again.

“It shouldn’t come to the fact that Fine Gael may be needed.

“Other parties sought a mandate – they made a lot of extraordinary, impossible promises to the Irish people – and they have a duty now to fulfil those promises or come out here and say that they failed.”

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