Enda must study a past 'ABFF' line-up for new coalition clues
Published 19/03/2016 | 02:30
Word around Leinster House is that Enda Kenny is trying to emulate John A Costello's 1948-1951 Interparty Government which comprised five parties and eight Independents in an 'Anybody But Fianna Fáil Coalition'.
But even Mr Costello's daunting Dáil arithmetic in February 1948 - when he started with 31 TDs to Eamon de Valera's 68 - was better than what Mr Kenny is facing into. The bugbear now is that any minority coalition which can be pulled together, led by either of the big parties, looks like needing some form of arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Perhaps it is time for the caretaker Taoiseach to have a word with his predecessor, 95-year-old Liam Cosgrave who is happily still hail and hearty having quit public life way back in 1981.
In 1948, he was given the thankless task of Government Chief Whip, trying to keep this motley political mixum-gatherum on track. Speaking back in 2010, Mr Cosgrave recalled the political inexperience of many of his new charges. "Many of them had not even been in an Urban District Council," he said.
At a dinner marking John A Costello's retirement from politics in 1969, Liam Cosgrave had also reflected on the contradictory aims of this extraordinary government's supporting TDs.
"One believed the Taoiseach was a Republican, others that he would preserve 'the tenuous link with the Crown'. One wanted an increase in the price of milk, another would withdraw his support if the price of butter went up. And yet another would bring down the government unless a ban on taking sand from the foreshore of his constituency was lifted," Cosgrave recalled.
It included republicans, free-staters, conservatives, socialists, trade union leaders, farmer activists, and intensely-locally focused Independents. It ran from February 1948 until May 1951 and only narrowly failed to get re-elected.
The diverse line-up of that first Interparty Government is worth summarising at length.
Fine Gael had 31 TDs and compromised on leader, giving the job to John A Costello.
Labour had nine TDs and their leader William Norton became Tánaiste.
Clann na Poblachta, led by ex-IRA leader Seán MacBride had 10 TDs.
Clann na Talmhan, a rural development party, had seven TDs.
National Labour, which split from Labour, had five TDs.
One of eight supporting Independent TDs, James Dillon, took a Cabinet seat.
Its unlikely coming together had much to do with a "get-them-out" feeling after 16 continuous years of rule under Eamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil. Its relative cohesion, which saw it last a year over the average longevity of the previous Fianna Fáil administrations, was due to the decency and political skills of John A Costello.
This government's demise is popularly remembered as due to divisions over reaction to trenchant Catholic Church opposition to Health Minister Noel Browne's 1950 "Mother and Child Scheme". To the equal fury of doctors, this had guaranteed free health care to mothers and children up to age 16.
Commentators agree that it was a big bugbear which could have been better handled. But they also argue that a series of other factors, notably the loss of Independents' support over farm prices, were a bigger factor in its demise.
It was not universally popular and always struggled to rival Fianna Fáil's unitary strength. But its achievements included the declaration of a Republic in 1949, ultimately bringing stability to Ireland's status, and laying the cornerstone in the successful battle against TB in the population.
On the day the Dáil returned in June 1951, there were still doubts about which side would be elected. At one stage, Costello appeared to have 72 TDs to de Valera's 69. But a number of Independents siding with de Valera, and a switch in appointing the Ceann Comhairle, gave Fianna Fáil a two-seat majority.
Indeed, a second simplified model of the same was returned to power under John A Costello in 1954 and ran until 1957. There are, of course, some similarities and many differences between the circumstances then and now.
But the point is that unlikely coalitions can be formed and made to work.