Thursday 29 September 2016

Many faultlines and obstacles threaten the lifespan of this new arrangement

Published 06/05/2016 | 02:30

Not gone away: Water issue will bedevil Micheal Martin’s Fianna Fail. Photo: Tony Gavin
Not gone away: Water issue will bedevil Micheal Martin’s Fianna Fail. Photo: Tony Gavin
Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke

So how long can this peculiar hybrid of a Government actually last? Even before the deal on this never-before-seen minority coalition was dragged over the line, politicians of all hues at Leinster House were asking themselves that intriguing question.

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The short answer is that minority governments have lasted the course well in many other countries - and some rather unlikely government arrangements in the Ireland of times past have also persisted.

Bertie Ahern's three-legged stool of 1997-2002 combined Fianna Fáil, the Progressive Democrats and four Independent TDs. At its inception it was given a potential lifespan of just a few months - but it ran for five years and Ahern was subsequently re-elected twice.

But this minority Fine Gael alliance with diverse Independents, underpinned by permission from Fianna Fáil, makes Bertie Ahern's three-legged stool look very straightforward indeed.

This Government is the least worst option - just one step up from the worst option: another general election.

Since absolutely nobody wants another general election, those involved will want to make it work. That is not a bad start - but of itself it is no guarantee that it will work and last the course.

For a better guess, let's look at the various faultlines and assess how they can be strengthened - or how they might just burst this fragile government sooner rather than later. Many people will view the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil talk of it lasting until late 2018 with some scepticism.

First, there is the Independents' need to learn a new approach that will allow them get over a default tendency among some of their predecessors of being against the Government - any government. The Independents will also need to learn to take a step back when something happens that would normally earn their reflexive condemnation.

Government is about hard choices and swallowing individual opinions. It runs on the principle of collective responsibility and defending colleagues who are under pressure.

It is slower, harder and more complex than being a local advocate and a contributor to national debate. Few of these attributes have been second nature to Independent TDs up to now.

For some of those involved, it will involve a complete change in their political culture and their approach to the job so far. Resisting calls from local supporters to rebel may be easier said than done.

Second, there is Fianna Fáil's need to adapt to its two-phased role of "government facilitator" and lead party of opposition, nervously eyeing Sinn Féin as it faces across to the Government it has pledged to support. In a complete break with its 90-year history and experience, Fianna Fáil has passed on a cut at government and opted instead for political power from the opposition side.

Micheál Martin and his colleagues have big decisions to make in the coming two years. Can they wait for a new Fine Gael leader to be chosen and bedded in? Won't there be a temptation to shut down this Government quickly and force Fine Gael to fight the next election under Enda Kenny or a newcomer who has not had time to get his or her footing?

Is it in their interest to let Fine Gael make big inroads and gain kudos for successfully piloting in a totally new kind of government? What issue could present itself to allow Fianna Fáil pull the plug on the Government with the least blame? The as-yet-unknown answer to at least some of these questions will tell us all we need to know about this emerging Government's lifespan.

All of that brings us neatly to Fine Gael and Enda Kenny.

Much has been made of this arrangement being put together just so he can become the first leader of his party to be elected Taoiseach twice in succession.

But in mitigation of this, he also had an obligation, as incumbent Taoiseach and leader of the biggest party, to work hard to deliver government from the mosaic-like Dáil that voters delivered on February 26.

Now the 65-year-old Mayo man, who has 40 years' Dáil service, faces the biggest challenge of his career.

All his interpersonal skills and political wiles will be required if he is to successfully launch this experimental Government.

Trust and a spirit of co-operation must come from the top.

Kenny must overcome the reality that he has lost much political credibility on his path back into office.

Harsh critics can argue that he returns to office but not necessarily to power. Against that, Kenny can gain much if he can make this strange arrangement work for a term, allowing three Budgets be passed.

Everybody in Fine Gael also accepts that Enda Kenny cannot lead the party into the next election. So he must - sooner rather than later - choose a time to exit party leadership and Government Buildings. In doing so, he must help to manage an orderly handover, one that does not disrupt the fragile Government arrangement. It is the political equivalent of a multi-level game of chess.

When you glance through all those potential faultlines, it is not easy to be optimistic about the longevity of the emerging Government. But let's hope that, if successfully launched, it can take on a dynamic of its own.

The experiment is also full of opportunities for all of the 158 TDs to put their voters' stamp on new politics.

Irish Independent

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