Maurice Hayes: Best outcome is stable government -- no matter which party supplies it
Published 07/02/2011 | 05:00
IN one romanticised version of Irish history, a defeated Jacobite soldier, after the battle of the Boyne, was heard to taunt his Williamite captor: "Change leaders and we'll fight you again."
One of the paradoxes of the present election is that except for the one with a clear lead in the polls, the leader exceeds the drawing power of the party.
It is interesting to speculate how much further ahead of the field Fine Gael might be if Enda Kenny was anywhere near as high in the public estimation as the party he leads.
Mr Kenny, a person of great integrity and quiet charm, who has done wonders in rejuvenating his party to the extent that it is now in pole position, has somehow not managed to capture the imagination of a public looking for an El Cid figure to lead it out of financial bondage into a more hopeful economic future.
While the public debate at present centres on the battle between them and Labour for primacy in the coalition which will form the next government, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Fine Gael could win enough seats in the incoming Dail to enable them to go it alone.
Almost the only certainty is that Fianna Fail will not form the next administration, nor, in the present mood of the Irish public, form any part of it. The best that Micheal Martin can do in the circumstances is to minimise the damage so that they preserve the critical mass to form a responsible opposition in the next Dail, and a base on which to rebuild.
Parties in power continuously for a long time lose the run of themselves, and need a period in the wilderness to reattach themselves to reality. It is an axiom of politics that parties do their thinking in opposition. When in government they tend to be fully occupied dealing with the serial crises of the day at the expense of the fundamental soul-searching and strategic policy formulation which Fianna Fail need to do.
Also of interest are the 20pc or more who have not yet made up their minds, and who might not vote at all, and the high showing for Independents with growing support for Sinn Fein.
It may translate as an expression of public anger against the established parties, a desire to strike out blindly at someone or something, or a complete loss of faith in politics, which would be the most desperate state of all.
Sinn Fein is another party that may have leader problems, especially in the televised debates. Gerry Adams, who will certainly take a seat in Louth, does not always show a deep understanding of the nuances of politics in the South or an adequate grasp of economic principles or international finance, while the mantras which carried him so successfully for so long in the North have lost their shine and their relevance.
The problem with Independents, whether in government or opposition, is that they are also independent of each other. Government by everybody is, in the end, government by nobody, described by Hannah Arendt as the ultimate form of dictatorship.
The main issue in the election is the economy and how to get the public finances in order in a reasonable time without crippling the economy. While banking and the terms of the bailout may be useful safety valves for the release of anger, they are matters for future negotiation, and will not be solved by shooting the messengers from the ECB or the IMF.
In the context of gearing what is spent on public services to what can reasonably raised in taxation, the hollowness of parties who promise what cannot be delivered, or who buy votes with money that is not there, should be evident to all.
With Fianna Fail virtually relegated to the sidelines, the election is shaping up as a battle between Fine Gael and Labour -- in which the fundamental policy differences between them on issues of taxation, the handling of the deficit, and the approach to public-sector reforms are exposed to the extent that it is difficult to see a programme for government emerging which is not a substantial watering down of both positions, if not a total fudge.
Already there are signs that Fine Gael is edging towards Labour on the ratio of taxation to cuts, and labour temporising on public-sector reform, but they are far from a meeting of minds. In relation to the public sector, Labour's links with the public-service unions must raise doubts in Fine Gael about their reformist zeal. Both parties profess adherence to the Croke Park Agreement, an exercise in nostalgia that is increasingly unrealistic.
The best outcome for the country is stable government, whichever party supplies it, a sense of direction and purpose and a leadership which gives people hope. Maybe the apparent shielding of Enda Kenny is a cunning ploy by Fine Gael to demonstrate the benefits of a collegiate rather than a presidential form of leadership: if not El Cid, then the A-Team.
Incidentally, it is to be hoped that someone in the Department of Finance is already briefing Enda Kenny in preparation for the March European Summit. It is in the national interest that he should not go naked into the conference chamber.