Friday 30 September 2016

Why FG-FF monolith is bad for Irish democracy

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

The Oscar favourite for best picture tonight is The Revenant, the story of a man badly mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions, who recovers and returns to visit retribution.

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Five years ago, Fianna Fail also lay dying after a bad mauling by the Irish electorate. Many pundits could find no pulse.

Brian Hayes, of Fine Gael, had good reason for gloating: "We are feasting over the carcass of Fianna Fail."

Micheal Martin breathed life back into that broken body. Thanks to him, Fianna Fail is Ireland's political revenant - meaning one who returns from the dead.

In Irish mythology, revenants were called neamh-mairbh. They often returned to torment those they had left behind.

But far from being feared as an agent of retribution, Fianna Fail is being courted as a cuddly and compliant coalition partner.

Last Friday, respected commentator Noel Whelan, anticipating a hung Dail, headed his column, 'Coalition with Fine Gael looks best option for Fianna Fail'.

Whelan argued that while many in Fianna Fail would give reasons to reject such coalition, most of these are selfish political reasons shaped either by concerns for the party's prospects and/or fears about the rise of Sinn Fein.

Why Whelan thinks that worrying about the rise of Sinn Fein is selfish baffles me. Surely such fears are the highest form of patriotism?

Apart from that, I believe Fianna Fail should reject coalition or partnership with Fine Gael.

I believe any such coalition would create a political behemoth that would be bad for Fianna Fail and worse for the country.

That is a stark statement. But I believe I have earned the right for it to be taken seriously.

For example, while Martin's starring role in the recent campaign took many pundits aback, it was no surprise to regular readers.

As far back as November 2012, I wrote the first of many columns on Martin's merits, titled 'No future for Fianna Fail in Middle Ireland minus Martin'.

The epiphany that only Martin could revive Fianna Fail came while watching the sustained and affectionate applause he received at the Fintan Lalor Autumn School in Portlaoise.

That week, I wrote: "Likeability is a plus in any leader. But it is crucial in the leader of a party loathed by a lot of the Irish people."

In the following three years, I consistently and correctly challenged both Martin's FF critics and pontificating pundits on three major issues.

Last April, I contradicted the majority of pundits who claimed Martin would cosy up to Sinn Fein. "I have no hesitation in stating as a hard fact that the political leader least likely to do a deal with Sinn Fein is Micheal Martin."

In January, in a column titled 'Beware the back-seat drivers of Fianna Fail', I criticised former Fianna Fail grandees who were already weakly urging a deal with Fine Gael.

Finally, I tackled the anti-Martin FF faction, which engorged with an exalted sense of self-entitlement, was blind to Martin's high standing with the public.

A few weeks ago, I castigated them for joining the consensus of pundits demanding that Martin form a hypothetical government in advance of the General Election.

Had he followed their asinine advice he would have demoralised Fianna Fail loyalists and put off potential supporters.

Fianna Fail's stunning results this weekend confirm the shrewdness of Martin's strategy.

And it also confirmed the correctness of the consistent advice in my columns - that it would be foolish of Martin to give into the few faint-hearts who had no belief in the future of Fianna Fail.

No, I'm not bragging. As Muhammad Ali says, it's not bragging if you can back it up. And I can.

I'm citing my record of correct challenges to bolster my firm belief that going into government with Fine Gael would be bad for both FF and Irish democracy for the following six reasons.

First, it would create a monopolistic monolith. And this country does not like monopolistic monoliths, no matter how benign.

Second, since nature abhors a vacuum, all good journalists would automatically balance the books by casting a beady, hypercritical eye on every action of the government.

Third, reacting angrily to a growing critical chorus, the FG-FF monolith would be tempted to try turn RTE into a rubber stamp.

Fourth, a weak Labour Party, left without sufficient critical mass in opposition, would be soon cannibalised by Sinn Fein.

Fifth, Sinn Fein would become the main watchdog against abuses of power - and there is bound to be abuses of power by such a massive monolith.

Finally, whatever about a full partnership, Fianna Fail should learn a hard lesson about junior partnership from what has happened to the Labour Party.

Not being a consensus pundit, I don't mean anything as banal as the cliché that the junior party must always suffer from coalition.

Dick Spring's Labour Party did well while in coalition with John Bruton's Fine Gael, simply because it was ready to be bolshie and pull the plug for a principle.

But under the leadership of Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore, Labour became an apologist for Fine Gael. Even when Joan Burton became leader she never quite lost that servile stance.

Right now, Fianna Fail is riding high. Accordingly, its best option would be to reject coalition and force FG to form a government.

That's because while Fianna Fail is back on its feet, it is not fully recovered.

To secure its future, Fianna Fail needs to build on the glamour of its successful campaign, find more first-class candidates and sort out Dublin where there is much to do.

Right now going into coalition with Fine Gael appeals mostly to Martin's discredited critics who fancy their chances as junior ministers in a Fine Gael-led government.

Luckily, there are only a few faint-hearts in Fianna Fail who want to lie down and die in early middle age.

A coalition with Fine Gael holds no great attractions for fighters on the front bench like Niall Collins, Barry Cowen, Billy Kelleher, Timmy Dooley and Willie O'Dea.

In party terms, the biggest losers from coalition would be the group of new TDs who need to cut their teeth in opposition by grinding on their opposite numbers.

These TDs are the future. They need to rack up parliamentary experience battling in opposition.

But they will learn nothing by sitting in silent rows like tailors' dummies, like so many Fine Gael TDs after the 2011 election.

These new TDs must hope that former grandees will have the grace to get on with their golf and let a new generation gird itself for battle.

However, Noel Whelan still seems confident of a rotating Taoiseach coalition. He finished his column last Friday by telling us that "in the weeks that follow the Rubicon will be crossed".

To borrow a cliché from the election debates: with all due respect I disagree with Whelan for two reasons.

First, the Fianna Fail rank and file will reject coalition at the mandatory, special Ard Fheis.

Second, having won a battle, Micheal Martin is not likely to lose a war.

Sunday Independent

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