Tuesday 25 October 2016

The coming together of the Civil War parties is a long way from inevitable

How the electorate reacts to the coming weeks of instability will determine what Fine Gael and Fianna Fail do, writes Dan O'Brien

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

'You can quibble around the edges, but both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are essentially centrist, catch-all parties – moderate, mildly conservative, perhaps, but far from reactionary.' Photo: Steve Humphreys
'You can quibble around the edges, but both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are essentially centrist, catch-all parties – moderate, mildly conservative, perhaps, but far from reactionary.' Photo: Steve Humphreys

Fragmentation. Splintering. Fracture. These were the words often used yesterday as the exit polls were digested and results trickled in.

  • Go To

As of late yesterday afternoon, it was absolutely clear that the 32nd Dail will be the most diverse in living memory. The duopoly that the Civil War parties have enjoyed since the 1930s is over.

The conventional wisdom, shared by most political analysts and pundits until very recently, was that the combined support of the coalition parties would rise during the campaign on the basis that Irish voters are "stability oriented" (there was even talk as recently as January of Fine Gael winning an overall majority). This reading of the electorate has proved very wrong.

Voters did not do as the British electorate did last May. They did what voters in Greece, Spain and Portugal all did last year. They rejected the incumbents, as indeed have the vast majority of electorates across Europe since the Great Recession of 2008/09 and subsequent euro crisis.

Yesterday, there was already talk of pressure coming on Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to form a government or at least come to some sort of arrangement so that the country can be governed. Again, some analysts were saying yesterday that that is what the public wants. Really?

Last week's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll, which turned out to be almost identical to the two exit polls, asked people for their preference in the event of a hung Dail. One-in-three preferred another election, the most popular option. The second biggest grouping - 24pc - backed a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail tie up.

These two outcomes still appear to be the only likely ones in the weeks and months ahead. Before considering the factors which could determine which outcome we end up with, it is worth considering the Constitutional mechanics and precedents from recent decades when there was no clear election winner.

The Constitution states that the new Dail must convene within 30 days after the holding of the election and that the first order of business be the election of a Ceann Comhairle. With the date already set for March 10 we know that gap between the election and the assembling of the 32nd Dail will be (the conventional) two weeks.

Following a change to the process of electing the Ceann Comhairle just last month, the vote will be by secret ballot rather than the traditional (open) Dail division. This should help ensure, even with such a fragmented parliament, that somebody is elected to fill the role.

Once that happens the business of forming a government can begin. The Constitution puts electing a Taoiseach as the first order of business. If Enda Kenny is not re-elected he is obliged both by the Constitution and convention to resign, although he will remain in office with full powers until such time as a successor is elected (that is also the case for the rest of the cabinet, including any ministers who have lost their Dail seats).

Importantly, the Constitution puts no limit on the amount to time that passes before a Taoiseach is elected, as is the case in Spain where, incidentally, nine weeks after an inconclusive election and endless coalition discussions they are still showing no signs forming a government.

Because there is no time limit, it is theoretically possible that over the entire five-year Dail term no Taoiseach is elected and that the outgoing cabinet remains in office. That, of course, won't happen, and if no Taoiseach is elected after weeks or possibly months, the 32nd Dail will eventually be dissolved and another election scheduled.

How much time might elapse before fresh elections are called? Here we can look to precedent. Since the State was founded, a Taoiseach has almost always been elected with little delay upon the convening of a new Dail. On only two occasions in recent decades has there been a lengthy time lapse - in 1989 and 1992/93. The second case was the longest.

In 1992, an election was held on November 25 and the Dail convened on December 14. Weeks of talks took place, including over the Christmas period. The Labour party, buoyed by its "Spring Tide" of 33 seats, first negotiated with Fine Gael, but plumped for Fianna Fail in the end. It took until January 12 before a Taoiseach (Albert Reynolds) was elected.

Given this precedent, it is perfectly possible that in six weeks' time no Taoiseach has been elected.

In early April one could envisage a scenario in which Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, despite having sufficient numbers of TDs to command a majority, have not agreed to do so. Before looking at the dynamics behind the decision they will have to decide whether to coalesce or go back to polls. Another factor is worth considering: the role of the president.

Article 13 of the Constitution states that the president can refuse to dissolve the Dail on the request of a Taoiseach who has lost his majority. As such, even if the two Civil War parties believed it to be in their electoral interests to go for a second election as early as May, Michael D Higgins could say no, and is entitled to continue saying no for as long as he wants.

Given that the president is an avowed man of the left, and that the Irish left has long dreamed of forcing the two Civil War parties together in the belief that it would provide space for the left to surge, he may find it difficult to resist exercising that power.

But leaving that aside for the moment, there are very considerable reasons militating against a grand coalition.

First, the issue of a revolving Taoiseach would certainly be divisive, as it was in 1992 when Fine Gael rejected Labour's suggestion that Dick Spring get a turn at the top job. Second, despite plenty of talk that the parties are not different ideologically, they have policy differences that would be hard to square- water charges spring immediately to mind. Third, nor is it guaranteed, as of Saturday afternoon, that the two parties would command a very large majority, particularly if TDs defect (people like Eamon O Cuiv come to mind). A further reason is the much discussed fear of leaving the opposition field clear for Sinn Fein.

Yet another reason that could make one or both parties favour an early election is money. Nobody who has just fought a campaign relishes the thought of fighting another so soon. But the main parties are better positioned financially than most smaller parties and independents to do so. That would put them at an advantage, relatively at least, in an early second poll.

Central to the calculations of the Civil War parties on whether to seek a second election or enter into an arrangement - be it a coalition or one in which one party supports the other's minority government - will be how the public reacts to a period of instability.

If voters are spooked by uncertainty and signs that the economy is suffering as a result, there could be a swing away from independents and the smaller parties. Support could defragment as voters become more interested in having a government than in protest voting. In these circumstances, either or both of the two Civil War parties could calculate that it is in their interests to try their luck in the second election.

Alternatively, a period without a government could result in those who have voted for the non-mainstream parties and independents merely to be reinforced in their view that the establishment parties are passed their sell-by date. It is perfectly possible that support could fragment even further, as some of those who have voted for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail switch in anger at the parties' failure to provide a stable government.

I don't pretend to be able to predict the public mood. But Spain now could well be where Ireland will be in nine weeks. There, opinion polls are not showing any big shifts in support since the inconclusive election nine weeks ago. The parties cannot agree to form a government. A second election is looking almost certain.

Where Spain leads, Ireland may follow.

Sunday Independent

Read More