Wednesday 18 January 2017

Bertie Ahern: Coalition confection too rich as public prefers a mixed bag of all sorts

Published 20/02/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin Photo: Photocall Ireland
Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin Photo: Photocall Ireland

It's true that in politics, eaten bread is soon forgotten, but people have been through too much to pay the price for the pie in the sky that is now making up so much of the political menu.

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The Coalition planned to present the voters with an irresistible, mouth-watering selection. Fine Gael would have the top tier, but there would be a few choice soft centres for Joan Burton's party. Labour could then tie it all up in a red bow.

But the voters aren't biting; after at least six polls, it looks instead like we are going to get a mixed bag of dolly mixtures and Allsorts.

It won't be the first time this has happened and it won't be the last. And we have had perfectly good governments made up with the help of smaller parties and Independents.

And it's not over yet. In the final week of the campaign, the last set piece is the debate on Tuesday. I believe that it should be a straight shoot-out between Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin, the only two leaders with a prospect of becoming Taoiseach. A four-way free-for-all, including Joan Burton and Gerry Adams, is too distracting.

It will make it harder to examine policies in detail. You need to see potential Taoisigh put under pressure as the strength of manifestos is tested.

In 2007, a week before the last debate, Fianna Fáil was almost written off and expected to shed 20 seats. But that's not how it played out; well over a million people tuned in and the debate proved a game-changer.

When the dust settles and Mr Kenny has a chance to review the campaign, I feel the flaws will be obvious enough.

It has all the hallmarks of a 'here's one we prepared earlier' effort - most likely last October. In my view, the 'recovery story' was premature and over-played.

Working people are relieved to acknowledge that the national finances are in a better state. But they still find themselves frozen in an austerity climate, where they work longer hours, often on contracts, and they are being hit with all those extra taxes.

Young people struggle to rent, let alone buy a home.

So a 'recovery', which they believe will merely result in more of the same, hardly adds up to the delivery of 'the promised land'. Offering more of the same does not sound all that appealing.

The sacrifices made by working people were not reflected enough in the 'recovery' story; too many feel that it has passed them by. Had they focused on hard issues, like the delivery of more jobs, better health, housing and education, the public might have come on board.

Then there is the dangerous fixation with giving away surpluses which have yet to be earned.

The national debt is coming down, but it's still too high. All the emphasis is on either abolishing the USC or else easing it out on a phased basis, which presumes that growth will be stable and all will be right with the world.

We know, sadly too well, that international downturns make short work of even the best-laid plans. In our post-crash world, terms and conditions need always apply.

And here again is another hugely disappointing aspect of the campaign; Sinn Féin, some of the smaller parties and many of the Independents have dominated too much of the debate, focusing on what can't be done.

The negativity sucked the energy out of discussions and drained the patience of the public.

At dangerously high decibel levels, we've been lectured on what couldn't, can't or won't be done.

I would much prefer to have heard a greater interrogation of this motley crew's ideas on how they might power the economy ahead and drive things on.

There has been a reflex response, whereby too many appear too ready to be against everything; but as to what precisely they are actually for, that is left hanging.

According to Noel Whelan's 'Tallyman's Campaign Handbook', Ireland already became the first country in the western world to return more than 10pc of its parliament as Independents in 2011.

Given that Independents are coming in at a steady 25pc, we are on course to break our own record.

Even so, it's very important to point out that we have a solid and impressive history in forming governments of various hues.

To say that the current situation is unprecedented isn't true.

As far back as the 1948 general election, when Seán McBride's Clann na Poblachta won only 10 seats, it fell in with the Labour Party, the National Labour Party, Clann na Talmhan and a clutch of Independents to form the first inter-party government, with Fine Gael's John A Costello as Taoiseach.

Frank Sherwin, as an Independent TD for Dublin North Central, helped keep the ground-breaking and dynamic Seán Lemass-led government in power in the 1960s.

Sherwin was one of a number of Independent deputies who offered conditional support to Lemass after he had failed to win an overall majority in the 1961 and 1965 general elections. Back then, unlike modern arrangements, there were no formal deals.

In the 1981 general election, Fine Gael formed a minority coalition government under Garret FitzGerald with the Labour Party and the support of a number of Independent TDs.

When the government collapsed the following year, FitzGerald was back in power in a coalition with Labour.

In 1982, Charlie Haughey cobbled a government together with the support of the Independent Socialist TD Tony Gregory, the Independent Fianna Fáil TD Neil Blaney and the three Sinn Féin the Workers Party deputies, and so was appointed Taoiseach.

Then, in 1989, Charlie Haughey was famously forced to swallow hard and lead Fianna Fáil into government with the Progressive Democrats.

I also led coalition governments with the PDs in 1997 and 2002 and with the PDs and the Greens in 2007.

That a government can be formed is not an issue; but just how long it will last may well be.

It may be a bit presumptuous to speak of another general election before the present one is even completed, but I can see the ballot boxes coming out of cold storage well inside the forthcoming five year-term.

Irish Independent

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