Friday 9 December 2016

A result that brings uncertainty, not chaos

All 158 TDs face a big obligation to bring workable solutions to a new political order offering opportunities

Published 01/03/2016 | 02:30

An official prepares to begin day two of vote counting in the RDS centre in Dublin. Photo: Getty
An official prepares to begin day two of vote counting in the RDS centre in Dublin. Photo: Getty
Joan Burton comes in Phibblestown yesterday

They had billed it as a "Chaos or Us" choice. But voters did not buy into that premise and they used the ballot box to tell their political leaders.

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The Irish people clearly did not like the experience of five years under this Fine Gael-Labour coalition led by Enda Kenny. In the end two out of three of those going to the polls on Friday took their political trade elsewhere, to throw up a very diverse 32nd Dáil which is due to meet in 11 days'.

Most voters did not believe that Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan had saved the country, helped by Labour's Eamon Gilmore and later Joan Burton with Brendan Howlin ever present. Voters did not accept that this band had rescued us from the economic abyss we were in back in 2011.

Furthermore, the voters really disliked the implications of being told that failure to return the outgoing Coalition meant a certain return to that economic abyss. It was a scare too far for a people who have been badly scared on many occasions since the known economic world fell asunder in autumn 2008, throwing up an economic crisis to which Ireland was inordinately vulnerable.

The Fine Gael message "Let's Keep the Recovery Going" was especially poorly received. Slogans are not necessarily important of themselves at election time. Many pundits, including this writer, thought it was a good battle-cry at the outset.

But slogans do indicate a state of mind among those campaigning to seek re-election. There was clearly too much metropolitan influence upon those who shaped the campaign strategy of Fine Gael.

Too many people around the country only felt the effects of recovery very recently, if at all.

Late on in the campaign, Fine Gael quietly down-played that theme. They began more wisely with talk of "Sharing the Recovery." But the posters and flyers were already out there and the campaign message was set.

Labour's case was even more difficult. They were trying to put their brand on an economic recovery which was real. They were billing themselves as a party of social progress who would use another term to put more humanity into society through better health, housing and other services.

Both parties had done good work over the previous five years. They vastly reduced the national deficit, made inroads on long-term debt and more recently almost halved unemployment.

But it involved dishing out some harsh economic medicine. And it involved making rash promises which were never going to be fulfilled in a bankrupt country under economic supervision by the EU-IMF-ECB Troika.

There are grounds for believing that things could have been different if both parties - and especially Labour - had come out early, say in autumn 2011, and fessed up that their election promises were not deliverable. A better effort to explain the need for austerity just might have blunted continuing public sullen anger and defused things earlier.

It is of course, easy to be wise after the event. But both government parties got their election campaign rather badly wrong.

The outcome, involving heavy losses for both parties, means that the future of Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, and Labour's Joan Burton looks decidedly shaky. No political party does regicide quite like Fine Gael and it is almost six years since their last failed attempt on Mr Kenny's leadership in June 2010.

The loss of 20 TDs and the failure to cleanly deliver a first ever back-to-back term in government are surely grounds enough. No surprise, that Mr Kenny sought to fortify his position by moving into "putative Taoiseach space" on his first post-election appearance in Castlebar on Saturday night. It's not so easy for would-be rebels to wield the dagger in that circumstance.

Being about the business of government making with the mosaic that is the composition of the new Dáil buys Mr Kenny time. But he may be only postponing the inevitable.

Ms Burton's case is even more pressing. Her predecessor, Eamon Gilmore, to whom she showed scant loyalty, was peremptorily "oxtered" out of office following less calamitous local election results for Labour in May 2014. The only impediment to a similar fate for her is the extent of shell-shock across Labour where future existence is called into question.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin emerges with some credit as the party completed what they will style the first part of their recovery. Such talk is very much in doubt.

But for now he is entitled to celebrate in pulling out a result few predicted was possible.

However, what Mr Martin and his colleagues, old and new, do next is far from evident. They will come under big pressure to take bold action to help form a government.

Sinn Féin can claim some success and are leaning heavily on comparisons with 2011. But privately they will reflect on what they left behind. They are also facing much bigger competition from a renewed left which is both suspicious of and has great antipathy for Sinn Féin.

Mr Adams and his colleagues will fervently hope that Fine Gael move towards that "grand coalition" with Fianna Fáil. His key party people are already trying to push things in that direction.

On paper this historic realignment of Irish politics, via the coming together of the two big political beasts, would deliver a government backed by a big majority. Getting there would however be extremely problematic.

Both parties must first go through various steps and especially exclude other possibilities. These include other coalition permutations most of which seem like longshots.

There is also the prospect of putting together some kind of minority government, supported externally by either of the big two.

The problem here is that these possibilities appear like long-shots also as both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are far short of the magic 80 TDs needed for majority.

Past minority governments were just a small number of deputies short of the required majority. The extent of the current gap looks especially problematic.

The other potential solution is some kind of interparty government for which we must reach far back into our history for a precedent in the years 1948-51 and again in 1954-57. The first of these involved five parties and was led by Fine Gael.

The other four parties were long-departed Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan along with the split Labour and National Labour parties. The second interparty government involved Fine Gael, Labour and Clann na Talmhan and external support from Clann na Poblachta. Given the times they were in, they worked well enough for a period. They did involve Fine Gael having to put a compromise Taoiseach in John A Costello in 1948 as their leader, Richard Mulcahy, proved unacceptable.

The historic allusion raises questions about any such future move. But it does not rule things out.

Would Enda Kenny have to stand aside? Or, maybe Micheál Martin? Or both?

We do not know and we will not for quite some time. The reconvening of the Dáil on March 10 is unlikely to give us a result. Things could drag on and weeks could become months before we get a new government.

But in an uncertain world, with some very worrying economic challenges looming, we cannot hang about here. All the parties and Independents had better get a move on.

The quest for a workable government means all 158 TDs have a duty to involve themselves constructively in some way. In less than four months our biggest trading partner, Britain, could decide to leave the European Union.

We need a verdict here sooner rather than later.

There are many impediments ahead of a grand coalition which will make it really difficult to achieve. But it is worth finding out.

The worry of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about leaving Sinn Féin to be the biggest party of opposition appear to be more than a little hysterical and again insulting to the electorate. The Sinn Féin threat cannot be allowed hijack this debate about finding a durable and effective government.

This unprecedented and extraordinary election result leaves us facing a period of uncertainty. There is no need to characterise it as chaos.

But if delays are allowed to drag on and on without real commitment by the TDs old and new to find a solution, we could be looking at chaos.

The Irish people deserve better than that. Their response at any subsequent election which results from such chaos would be very emphatic and wreak vengeance on any shirkers.

Irish Independent

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