Wednesday 26 October 2016

Ireland and Britain need stability more than ever with both governments broken

Published 14/07/2016 | 02:30

Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair both left their respective parties in very poor shape Photo: PA
Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair both left their respective parties in very poor shape Photo: PA

Britain has a government and no real opposition. Ireland has a great opposition - but no real government.

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That's not quite the caricature you might think at first glance. In Westminster, the British Conservative leader, Theresa May, has moved seamlessly into the job of prime minister.

But since all decent democracies need an able and robust opposition, the problem for Britain right now is that Labour is at a very low ebb. It is divided, infiltrated by extreme leftist elements, and engaged in a destructive civil war.

Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is unelectable. It is a key part of the leader of the opposition's job to look like a putative prime minister.

Back here on the other island, it took us 70 days after an inconclusive General Election in February to put together a rather ropey-looking minority Government. But we have an abundance of political opposition, some of it is even in the Government.

The nice phrase is 'new politics'. There are other terms.

Ireland's leader of the opposition is nominally, and increasingly in Realpolitik terms, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Very recent opinion polls suggest Mr Martin is a plausible replacement Taoiseach. But the tight Dáil arithmetic also means he is already pulling the power strings in an unprecedented way, blurring the political boundaries.

Ireland's political model has diverged from Britain's over the years. At the foundation of the Irish State in 1922, we reflexively adopted the Westminster scheme of government and administration. And for decades we flagrantly copied a lot of British-modelled legislation lightly adapted to this jurisdiction.

True, we had PR, ironically at Britain's insistence, to their own first-past-the-post voting system. In fact Fianna Fáil twice, in 1959 and 1968, unsuccessfully tried to jettison PR in favour of a "plurality system" closer to the British model.

And our political party system largely mimicked the British one. They had a two-party system of Conservative and Labour. We had a two-and-a-half party system, with the Irish Labour Party accounting for the 'half' addendum to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Fianna Fáil purported to be Ireland's Labour Party. With apologies to Fine Gael, they were a partial and sometime fit for the British Conservatives.

Ireland began a certain political divergence in the 1980s with the emergence of coalition governments, with parties sharing seats at Cabinet. Britain is not without experience of coalitions - but the norm remains single-party government.

The arrival of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979 brought a new divergence in the politics of Britain and Ireland. Thatcher's Britain, which continued until 1990, was a more polarised country of haves and have-nots.

Ireland had a robust kind of politics with Charles Haughey facing Garret FitzGerald, generating great tribal rivalry. But Irish society was nowhere near as polarised as Britain in the same period.

The mirror image era of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, which began in 1997, saw a greater convergence between the two islands' politics.

Both leaders' reputations have taken a considerable battering in more recent times which risks dimming the extent of their popularity in power. Blair has taken a battering over his conduct in leading Britain into the Iraq War in 2003.

Ahern has been in the wars over his personal finances and over his boom-time economic leadership, set against the economic crash which followed months after his departure from office in 2008. Both Blair and Ahern also left their successors and their respective parties in very poor shape.

But it is too easy to forget that both Blair and Ahern were each elected on three occasions and enjoyed huge popularity. They also combined to do what has proved to be their best work in delivering a peace deal in Northern Ireland, which for all its flaws still stands.

In some respects the politics of both islands are in post-Blair/post-Ahern eras respectively. Blair departed in summer 2007 and Ahern in summer 2008. There have been profound changes since.

Ireland's position is the more critical as we badly need strong government.

The big point is that, now more than ever, Ireland and Britain need good government faced off by effective opposition. We await Britain's move to trigger the EU Article 50 exit talks process. The details of the final EU-UK package are vital for both islands, with Ireland's situation particularly perilous.

It is not a good time to have the two jurisdictions' political structures in such poor shape. There are huge leadership challenges ahead.

Irish Independent

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