Why minority governments are the best way forward in the national interest
Published 02/03/2016 | 02:30
I have been honoured to spend eight years as a member of our Oireachtas, and the past five as a TD. In that time I have observed and felt the brunt of an archaic hierarchy and a political system that frustrates many of us who know how things operate in the real world, outside of the cocoon of Leinster House.
Over the last eight years there have been times when I've really questioned the effectiveness of our national parliament as a place to make decisions about the future of our country. In particular I've wondered whether the collective will of our people is reflected in that decision-making process, and whether having a large majority on the government side and hyper-partisanship across all parties is really a healthy thing.
Some might argue that this is the way it's always been but as and from last Saturday night, nothing is the way it's always been in Irish politics. We now have a situation where there is no longer one dominant party and we may never return to a time when there is.
A radically changed political landscape obliges all of us who are honoured to be members of our national parliament to consider abandoning the tribalism that has been at the heart of Irish politics for decades. Is it too much to expect that the majority of our newly elected TDs will have the maturity to put their country first and take collective decisions that benefit our people as a whole?
I don't believe that a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition is the best option for Ireland right now. Such an arrangement would concede the leadership of the opposition to Sinn Féin who would use that opportunity to substantially turn up the volume on their propaganda loud-hailer.
We need Fianna Fáil to remain as the largest party in opposition, working with like-minded smaller parties and Independents. We in Fine Gael need to commit to working with this opposition grouping in a manner which is not typical of Irish politics but which works in other countries.
Minority governments are neither exceptional nor unstable, but in fact a common feature of parliamentary democracies. They frequently perform as well as, or better than, majority coalitions.
The more cynical amongst us might argue that such a working agreement could never be secured in Ireland but I have personal experience of seeing that kind of productive politics working very effectively in our national parliament.
As the Junior Minister for Education, I was responsible for taking legislation through the Education Committee, Dáil and Seanad. The Further Education and Training (SOLAS) Bill 2013 provided for the establishment of SOLAS, our new national further education and training agency, and also for the development of Ireland's first ever further education and training strategy.
As that historic piece of legislation passed through both houses of the Oireachtas, something pretty remarkable happened. During the long hours of debate on the Bill there was not one dissenting vote called by the opposition. Why was that the case?
In the weeks leading up to those debates I was determined to engage positively and proactively with my colleagues in opposition and our senior civil servants.
These were people who were equally knowledgeable and passionate about education in this country. Some very good ideas emerged as to how we could improve this groundbreaking legislation and they were incorporated into the Bill.
Ruairi Quinn and I were both of the belief that a good idea is always that, irrespective of where it emanates from. The partisan territorialism that sometimes passes for political engagement in this country was completely set aside and we ended up passing a piece of legislation that will benefit this country for decades to come.
I'm confident that this approach could and should be used in other policy areas. Yes, it would be messy and slow at times, because achieving consensus on things that really matter in life is sometimes messy and slow - but incredibly valuable when it comes to governing a country.
That hard-won consensus would be far more representative of the views of the electorate as whole and perhaps, rather ironically, a minority government might better represent the majority of Irish people.
Look at the election manifestos of all of our parties, large and small. There is some real consensus on what should be our priorities over the next five years.
We need to get our people back to work, get our young people home, get our health system working, and find a way to adequately fund a world-class education system.
We also need our political leaders to act in a genuine spirit of co-operation.
A minority government could actually restore our people's confidence in politics and give a greater say to all of our elected representatives in how our country is governed. In the areas where all of our ambitions align, we could achieve real and lasting change ... or am I just dreaming?
Ciaran Cannon is the outgoing Junior Minister for Education and has been re-elected for Fine Gael in Galway East