Reality and Dáil arithmetic suggest FG retaining power
Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30
I know some people who went out on February 26 and, sick of the sight of Fine Gael and Labour, voted for change. I know others, reassured by signs of recovery, who voted for stability. But we got neither change nor stability.
As we head deeper into week seven without a government, we know that we have merely got stalemate. It was never reasonable to expect that this crazy Dáil configuration could have given us a quick outcome on government formation.
Our model of government, going back to the 1920s, was based on the adversarial system, with a government empowered by an overall majority driving things on. The political diversity of this 32nd Dáil is nothing like that.
We not only have to seriously adapt our parliamentary structures, but we have also to change our political culture.
There must be much deal more inter-party co-operation on key issues. The administration must also adapt and become less secretive on matters like Budgets and be more open to sharing information.
Any way you look at it, all of that will take time. And such fundamental changes will not always happen smoothly. Just like Fianna Fáil's reluctant moves to sharing government from 1989 onwards, it may take a few goes before we get it anywhere near right.
But such big political changes are worth pursuing as they would bring distinct advantages. These include less political cant and less small-time politicking in our way of ordering our affairs. Parliament could emerge strengthened, with the chance to become a real watchdog for citizens' welfare and rights.
That is why all parties and Independents at Leinster House must re-double their efforts at government-making this week. Otherwise, we are talking about another election, the needless expenditure of €40m in taxpayers' money and the pointless expenditure of candidates' money and human resources.
We are also talking about more delay in tackling a host of pressing issues which require decision-making by a democratically elected government. And, more critically, we could also see a downgrading of our international credit rating.
This has already happened in the case of Spain, which has no new government, despite elections just before Christmas. Such a move in Ireland's case is not out of the question and it would be a cruel blow to people who already paid a heavy price in austerity to help repair the national finances.
As former Taoiseach John Bruton rightly pointed out at the weekend, another election might change some details of the Dáil configuration but it is most unlikely to resolve our hung Dáil dilemma. It makes far more sense for our politicians to work with what they have here and now.
We have already conceded that it was not reasonable to insist, as some people do, that our politicians "sort it out quickly". For something complex and unknown to our national experience, we need time.
What has been genuinely disappointing is the very slow progress - especially the 40-day delay on Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil getting together. That delay was then compounded by unedifying exchanges in an ill-mannered tone.
Micheál Martin was giving it a bit again yesterday, answering critics who evoked "Civil War politics". Interestingly, he was speaking at the commemoration for the patriot, Liam Lynch, who fell in that same Civil War.
Mr Martin is right to honour our patriot dead and also defend his party's reputation. But it is also now time to drop all that and apply his talents to the business in hand.
Since it is clear that minority government is our only real option and that such a government must be underwritten by either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, it is time for both parties to fix ground rules on how such a government would work. That includes agreements on how Budgets would be struck, how major pieces of enabling legislation would be cleared and how inevitable disputes would be resolved.
Some of those kinds of change would require significant civil service changes too. John Bruton pointed out, for example, that under current rules of Budget confidentiality it would not be possible for a Finance Minister to consult the opposition in advance.
So far, there has been a marked reluctance to get involved in the messy and perilous business of government in these new circumstances. Sinn Féin and the leftist Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit landed at Leinster House with the stated aim of hugging those opposition benches for dear life. Some eight of the Independent TDs have signalled a similar stance.
They all excel in their ambition to be right about everything that is wrong. Annoyingly, hidden in plain view, Sinn Féin is getting a 'free pass', with no question of an obligation to help seek government.
Much of what happened last week related to Fianna Fáil's reluctance to allow Sinn Féin a monopoly of opposition.
But while agreeing ground rules on how minority government should function, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil must once and for all - and swiftly - decide who will head this government. Reality and Dáil arithmetic suggests Fine Gael.
But some or all of the 15 Independent TDs, who have been courageously pursuing government talks with both big parties, could change that. These Independents must now give us their verdict as quickly as possible on who they will support.
Time is running out and we need decisions.