WHO says time travel cannot happen? Certainly not the laws of physics and nor, it seems, the laws of Irish politics. Confused? You certainly should be. Consider the following. On 22 November, the Green Party issued its famous statement that the party wanted a general election by the end of January, or around 68 days from that point. But now, 28 days on, a general election looks at the earliest to be more than 80 days away. And with each passing day, the general election date seems to get further away.
Even Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity found that time does not flow at a fixed rate, would find it difficult to work how this has happened. Although his own E=mc2 formula might offer some help in working out when polling day will finally arrive: ‘E’ being election day, with ‘m’ being the mass of legislation that has to be enacted and ‘c’, the speed of light in a (political) vacuum.
If you’re thinking that sounds like total horse manure, well, you’d be right. But the E=mc2 formula is as good as any because the reality is that in relation to the date of the general election, all theories are just that – theories. Nobody – not least, one suspects, Brian Cowen - really has a clue when it’s going to be.
There are certain factors – some of which have already been mentioned – that will influence when E-day does finally happen. The passing of the finance bill is key, while the Greens’ desire to see legislation such as the Dublin mayoral bill, the climate change bill and the ban on corporate donations implemented is also likely to be crucial. The views of the Green Party grassroots – which forced the parliamentary party’s hand in late November – will also come into it, as will public opinion. But the problem with all these factors is that they each involve so many unresolved issues.
For example, everybody agrees that the countdown to E-day will really begin once the finance bill has passed into law. The Greens made it clear on 22 November that while they wanted a general election it could only be after the budget and all the legislation underpinning it (ie, the finance bill) was enacted. They rather naively believed that this could be done so quickly that a general election by the end of January was possible. That can’t happen. But given the party’s commitment to seeing the budget through, it seems unlikely that the general election will be called until that after the finance bill.
But talk to five different people in government and you will get five different answers on when the finance bill will be completed. Mid-February seems to be the view of many observers, however, suggesting that the election date won’t be before 10 or 11 March.
That might horrify rank-and-file Green Party members who are anxious to have the election as soon as possible but, against that, will they want an early general election if it means that the climate change bill can’t be enacted? The Greens went into government to bring about this kind of legislation. Do they walk away without doing so for the sake of a couple of weeks?
As Oisín Coghlan, the influential Friends of the Earth director put it recently: “The Green Party say they went into government because of the compelling urgency of tackling climate change. Three years later it would be shocking if the Greens stayed in government long enough to bail out the banks and cut the budget, but not long enough to get the climate bill passed.”
There is confidence within the Green Party that the climate change bill can be passed quickly. “If the opposition play ball, we can get it through in a half a day,” one Green party source said. But the reality is that the opposition is unlikely to “play ball” and there are even some suggestions that some of provisions in the bill, relating to agriculture, may prove problematic for Fianna Fáil TDs, never mind those from the opposition.
As regards the other factors likely to dictate the date of the election, the public clearly wants shot of the current government, but it must be doubtful as to whether most people are overly exercised as to whether the election takes place in February or April.
TDs across all parties would privately prefer if it was closer to the April or May date posited by Frank Fahey on radio last week. Politicians hate the idea of canvassing on dark, cold and wet nights but the chances of the E-day going beyond early April look extremely remote.
From the government parties’ point of view, there is a lot to be said about hanging on until then or later. The economy is showing signs of life and there is a growing realisation that the EU/IMF bailout, while hugely undesirable, isn’t really the end of the world. Having done all the heavy lifting over the past couple of years, the more pragmatic government TDs – particularly in Fianna Fáil – will be horrified at the prospect of handing over power to the opposition just when things have started to stabilise.
However, they are unlikely to have too much choice in the matter. The Greens’ credibility has been damaged by what is perceived to be their flip-flopping on the date of the election. Having taken their stand on 22 November – for better or worse – there is simply no way they could credibly countenance the date being deferred for so long.
Of course, the main man in terms of deciding when the date will be is the Taoiseach Brian Cowen. He will certainly want a long campaign to maximise the opportunities to highlight the divisions between Fine Gael and Labour. He won’t want to make it seem like he is hanging on to power for the sake of it. Against that, with growing signs that the Gilmore gale may have peaked and Fine Gael potentially vulnerable to attacks on their leader, Cowen may just try to push it out as far as he possibly can, subject of course to the approval of the Greens. But, as has already been outlined, such approval may not be forthcoming.
One option being mooted is that Cowen will signal at some point in January that he will seek the dissolution of the Dáil once the finance bill is finalised in February.
So technically, the campaign would not begin until that some point in February, but in reality it would start straight away, in effect a six or seven week campaign, offering maximum opportunity for the government to attack the opposition parties and highlight the divisions between them.
So, where does that all leave us? Alas, not much wiser. So let’s come at it a different way. What can we say for definite? The general election will happen on a Thursday or a Friday. And given the Christmas break, it is safe to assume that Brian Cowen will not be calling on the president to seek a dissolution anytime before the middle of January, which suggests Thursday 3 February is the absolute earliest potential polling day. Let’s assume the Greens are willing to hang in there until they get all three pieces of legislation through and they approve trickier than expected. Even in those circumstances, the latest credible date for a general election is surely Friday 1 April – April Fools’ day.
However, unlikely it might be, no doubt many voters would regard this as the most appropriate date of all.