SO, there are just a couple of weeks left of what has been a genuinely extraordinary Dáil term. From George Lee's shock resignation, through the exits of Déirdre de Búrca, Willie O'Dea and Trevor Sargent, the realisation of the enormous costs involved in bailing out the banks, the publication of the banking reports, further issues surrounding expenses, accusations of economic treason, Brian Cowen's PR offensive and of course the challenge to Enda Kenny, there has scarcely been time to catch breath. There should be soon enough though. July and August traditionally offer some respite for governments. But such are the challenges still facing the country, any relief will surely only be temporary. So what lies ahead for the 30th Dáil? Will it, like its three predecessors, run its full term or will it collapse suddenly and prompt the first early general election in almost two decades? Here we look at the various scenarios facing politics over the next nine months or so.
The Dáil resumes in September and the government gets down to the difficult business of bringing in another tough budget. Despite the bad news, as was the case last year, the government has done its homework in politically proofing the budget (in so far as that is possible when you have to make savings of €3bn). The budget is passed with fairly minimal fuss, given the circumstances. The three by-elections are held in the spring and despite losing all three – as well as a dire performance in the Dublin mayoral contest – tight vote discipline in the Dáil ensures the government retains a narrow majority. Grumblings continue about Brian Cowen's leadership but the absence of a big-name challenger and the fear that unseating him will prompt a general election means that he is left unchallenged. The government's ratings edge up marginally as the economy continues to show signs of picking up but a clear majority continue to favour a Fine Gael-Labour alternative. Despite that, there is no sign of a general election until the beginning of 2012 at the earliest.
Likelihood: If the past 12 months is anything to go by, very, very possible. However, just because it is the most likely of the scenarios outlined – which it probably is – doesn't mean it will necessarily come to pass.
The summer passes quietly but Fianna Fáil continues to perform dismally in the polls. Brian Cowen continues to be put under pressure over his role as finance minister during the boom years and is not helped by the findings of an inquiry into the role of the Department of Finance over the past 10 years. The budget prompts a massive backlash as the depths of the cutbacks and the tax increases become obvious, prompting a further dip in the government's poll ratings. The by-elections and the Dublin mayoral contest – held in either the autumn or more likely the spring – are dismal for the government with Fianna Fáil even coming third in its former stronghold of Donegal South-West as its vote collapses. The result in the two Dublin polls are particularly awful with Fianna Fáil coming fourth in the race for Mayor. This proves the final straw for the parliamentary party – which is facing decimation in the next general election – and there is a move against the Taoiseach, who bows to the inevitable and resigns before a motion of no confidence is heard. Cowen is replaced by Brian Lenihan/Micheál Martin/Dermot Ahern – take your pick. The new Taoiseach moves quickly to head off demands for an immediate general election, insisting that the national interest requires the government must introduce another budget and pledging to hold a general election after that. The new Taoiseach fights the general election as a damage limitation exercise on the basis of the budget, challenging the opposition parties to come clean on its budgetary strategy.
Likelihood: A possibility rather than a probability but stranger things have happened, not least in the past six months.
Fine Gael enjoys an early boost in the polls following Kenny's tough action in repelling the heave against him. But, by the autumn, the party starts to slide again and the electorate, particularly in the east of the country, continues to be unconvinced by Kenny. The three by-elections and the Dublin mayoral contest are held in the spring and the result is a huge set-back for Fine Gael. Labour, as expected, comfortably wins Dublin South and the Dublin mayoral contest, but it also causes a major shock when, having pulled off a coup in selecting a high-profile candidate, it pips Fine Gael to take Waterford and in Donegal South-West Fianna Fáil bucks the national trend with the first by-election win by a government in nearly 30 years. This, allied to Labour's continuing strong poll ratings, leads to Kenny getting a visit from the Fine Gael equivalent of the men in grey suits. He tenders his resignation from the leadership. Richard Bruton takes over without a contest.
Likelihood: Highly unlikely, but not absolutely impossible.
Fianna Fáil edges up in the polls over the summer and the economy continues to show signs of improvement. Fine Gael continues to flat line in the polls and the tensions continue within the party with ongoing grumbling from dissident wings. Labour maintains its strong performance in the polls but the media begins to put serious pressure on Eamon Gilmore to spell out what his party's policies would be in government. With the coalition's majority continuing to narrow in the Dáil and the main opposition party clearly disunited, Cowen takes a massive gamble. He announces the outline of the upcoming budget and calls a general election, declaring that the election is a referendum on the current budgetary policy and demanding that the opposition need to outline their plans. Fianna Fáil runs a series of TV adverts, juxtaposing shots of pro-Kenny and pro-Bruton supporters from the Fine Gael leadership heave to the tune of 'Love & Marriage' sung by Frank Sinatra – a direct play on the Fine Gael TV ads from the Haughey era. It also strongly stresses the policy differences between the two main opposition parties. Despite this, Fine Gael and Labour comfortably win the election. However, Fianna Fáil – thanks to a good campaign where Cowen throws caution to the wind and the strength of individual candidates – performs better than expected, winning around 60 seats and giving the party a base from which to rebuild from the opposition benches as the new government is forced to continue the tough budgetary medicine.
Likelihood: as with scenario No 3, highly unlikely to happen, but you never know.
The budget is a horror show. The only way of getting the €3bn in savings is to introduce a property tax, bring low earners into the tax net and take an axe to spending. With the country in a state of near revolt, a small number of government backbenchers break the party whip and with the government numbers already depleted, it's enough to defeat the coalition in the Dáil and precipitate a general election, which Fine Gael and Labour win with an enormous majority. Fianna Fáil with well under 50 seats is facing at least two terms out of power.
Likelihood: Turkeys don't vote for Christmas and Fianna Fáil deputies, knowing they will face a general election tanking, won't vote down the government.
With the Greens (unfairly) continuing to take it in the neck for being part of a government with Fianna Fáil, the junior coalition partner decides it needs to pick a 'matter of principle' on which to withdraw. It may be over the failure to ban corporate donations or over the introduction of third level fees or water charges without metering, but whatever the issue, the Greens insist Fianna Fail has breached the agreed programme for government and that they can no longer coalesce with Brian Cowen and his party because trust has broken down. The Taoiseach, shorn of his Dáil majority, has no option but to call a general election.
Likelihood: There is a strong chance the Greens will at some point look for an issue on which to honourably withdraw from government, but it's unlikely to happen until well into 2011. The Greens have proved rock solid in government to date despite huge pressure and that's unlikely to change in the near future.
In September, the government continues to enjoy a majority of five or six in Dáil votes. However, the loss of three by-elections brings that down to a particularly tight margin.
Previous Dála clearly demonstrate that government majorities tend to fall over the four or five years due to defections, illness etc and by late spring, 2011, the government no longer has the numbers to continue in office, pushing Brian Cowen into calling a May general election.
Likelihood: A possibility rather than a probability but a possibility nonetheless.
Who would have thought the Fianna Fáil-Labour government would have fallen over the Brendan Smyth affair? And who could have predicted that events at the beef tribunal would cause the first Fianna Fáil-PD coalition to collapse in 1992? The point being that in politics, it is generally the unexpected rather than the planned issue that brings a politician or a government down.
It hasn't happened since those crazy few weeks in November, 1992, but that doesn't mean some as of now unknown issue won't arise over the next 12 months that will end up causing a general election.
Likelihood: It couldn't happen, could it?