Wednesday 28 September 2016

Micheal Martin can't have it every way ­ the voters won't stand for it

The Fianna Fail leader's commitment to consensus government is about to be put to the test

Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30

Picking and choosing: Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin with party candidate Aoife Byrne as they sample some of the traditional sweets in Aunty Nellie's Sweet Shop, during canvassing in Wexford Photo: Frank McGrath
Picking and choosing: Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin with party candidate Aoife Byrne as they sample some of the traditional sweets in Aunty Nellie's Sweet Shop, during canvassing in Wexford Photo: Frank McGrath

Since the election, many are having great difficulty getting their heads around what the people actually voted for. Two interpretations have been put forward, neither of which is convincing.

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One is that the people voted for a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition. The people most vociferously arguing for a 'grand coalition' are those who predicted beforehand that that would be the outcome, irrespective of the stated opposition to that by both Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin.

Now these commentators seem to be almost taking it personally that both Kenny and Martin, in particular, are unwilling to renege on their commitments. The other interpretation is that the election result was "inconclusive"

That claim was most recently made by the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, in an interview last week. But it is also a false interpretation, which perhaps suits Mr Adams and Sinn Fein to make, as it, somewhat, allows them off the hook.

In the absence of any other correct interpretation, this is my view as to what the people voted for, posed as a question: who is afraid of consensus government?

The majoritarian commentators, and Sinn Fein and the far Left, will continue to scoff at the notion, but until they come up with a better interpretation of the result, we will leave them to that for the moment.

The success of government by consensus places great responsibility on all 158 members of the new Dail, not just Fine Gael and Independent TDs and smaller parties, which to their credit seem to be taking that responsibility seriously in recent days, but also those other far-Left Independents and smaller parties and, of course, Sinn Fein, which are not.

These parties and TDs, which represent around one fifth of voters, have, so far, abdicated all responsibility towards government, other than with each other, which is convenient but lacking in consensus. Regardless, the form of government which is now slowly beginning to emerge will eventually highlight the paucity of their ambitions for the people who voted for them and the consequences of that will fall where they may.

However, the real test of the success of consensus government will be for Fianna Fail, if, as currently seems likely, that party will lead the Opposition to offer tacit support to a Fine Gael-led minority government. Fianna Fail has been accused of trying to have it both ways in this regard, to have its cake and eat it, and there is a large measure of truth to that accusation.

So be it. My view is that Fianna Fail has still not fully thought through what it intends to achieve by having it both ways. That is for the party to contend with. But it should be aware that the new political dispensation it is helping to usher in, that is, government by consensus, is a double-edged sword which will cut both ways for the party, as much towards responsibility as opportunism.

In the first instance, the 'just get on with it' brigade, that is those who continue to demand a 'grand coalition', need to hold their horses for another week or two until we see what emerges from the parliamentary reform talks which are under way. The outcome of those talks will dictate how the new Dail will function. At a minimum, it should enshrine that a government cannot fall other than on failure to pass a budget or to win a vote of confidence.

In such a reformed Dail, the real politics will begin towards the relative success or failure of consensus government, which I have argued is the will of the people. If Fianna Fail does fail to live up to its commitments in this regard, then the people will have every opportunity to return it from whence it has just come, that is to a party of 20 or fewer seats.

As I have said, I am not entirely convinced that Fianna Fail is fully aware of its responsibilities in this regard. I have argued recently, a little clumsily, that Fianna Fail represents something of the 'native spirit' and there is certainly a view in the party that it is back, back for good and can now do no wrong, which would be a mistaken belief to allow take root.

As a consequence of the failure of the outgoing Coalition and the lack of broad appeal of Sinn Fein and the far Left, Fianna Fail has been given another opportunity. That is all. It must grasp that opportunity with both hands.

That opportunity should not be confused with opportunism, but rather should be aligned with responsibility. I am not quite convinced that a majority in the party quite get the distinction.

There is concern in Fine Gael, and among the Independents, that Fianna Fail would collapse their minority government at the most opportune moment for Fianna Fail after a decent passage of time, say a year or 18 months or so. Such concerns are valid.

But Micheal Martin can not have it every way. More than anybody else in the Dail, yes even more so that Gerry Adams and the far Left, and more so than Enda Kenny and those honourable Independents who have stepped forward, the spotlight will be on the Fianna Fail leader throughout the duration of a Fine Gael-led minority government which will be dependent on the support of Fianna Fail for the passage of budgets and votes of confidence. Martin may find that an uncomfortable place to be, as will his frontbench and most of his parliamentary party. Such is life.

Fine Gael and Independent sources have suggested that they would require a five-year deal with Fianna Fail to make such a government by consensus work. I recently quoted a senior Fianna Fail figure, apropos Sam Goldwyn, that a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it is written on.

In other words, this Fianna Fail figure believed the party should offer a written commitment as to its bona fides to make government by consensus work, with a two-year duration mentioned. There is also tentative talk in Fianna Fail this weekend that it may offer such support on the basis of six-monthly reviews.

The truth is no such written or verbal commitments should be required, other than a commitment not to collapse a government in relation to a budget or insubstantial confidence vote or the kind that Sinn Fein and others in the Opposition will bring forward every six months, no matter what. No, government by consensus is just that, a negotiated consensus to tackle the many issues besetting this country and for the best outcomes and remedies to be agreed in advance.

That is what Micheal Martin is on the verge of signing up to, and on that he should and will be held to account.

Sunday Independent

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