The sum of FF and FG could be five years of stability
Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30
The rugby was a welcome distraction and although our boys were defeated, it was break from the main event. But coverage of the election was compelling, box office viewing. Thank God the electronic voting never caught on - there is something uniquely attractive about our paper counts. It was always going to be an exciting day of reckoning and change in Irish politics.
After all, who can remember a period in our history more fractured or more politically polarised? The whole trauma of our country losing sovereignty to the IMF and ECB and the brutal corrections required in the public finances has triggered the mass politicisation of the population.
Those who previously paid heed to politics only at election time began to listen up. Many have turned away from established parties in disgust and joined new anti-austerity and far Left groups. Independents, too, are prospering in this drift away from traditional parties.
As widely expected, as the smaller party, Labour has been punished by a disproportionate share of public disapproval. Too much government cohesion eclipsed its distinct political identity, and it lost many seats to the hard Left Sinn Féin and Independents.
Joan Burton (below) and Alan Kelly barely survived, but many senior Labour colleagues have suffered the same fate as the Progressive Democrats and Greens in earlier coalitions. Fine Gael has lost heavyweights too. Renua failed to make any impression despite a high-profile leader in Lucinda Creighton, who lost her seat. In contrast, the Social Democrats' offering found favour with their principled proposals on good governance. Overall, though, it is difficult to read from the results of the election what people actually want apart from change.
Although the Independents in all their diversity, from the Healy-Raes to Shane Ross, are poll-topping in many instances, they are not really government material. Independents by their nature are eccentric and unreliable. Satisfying their every whim and pet project can be expensive and undermine government TDs in constituencies.
The anti-austerity TDs have only one channel and that is to protest, disrupt and foment public anger. They are not actually interested in running a government.
Sinn Féin is on a long march to a united Ireland based on a left-wing, republican and anti-business ideology. Thankfully it appears happier to remain in opposition. It has had a good election with its anti-government rhetoric finding favour, according to polls, with increasing numbers of young people in particular and unemployed males. In my view, its success is linked to party discipline, hard work and ambition. It has brought all the stamina of a former participant in an armed struggle into politics.
When the dust settles, it will take some time for cool heads to assess what options remain. There will be little patience for dithering and for parties serving their own interests. Despite their protests, the most likely option is a stable administration comprising Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
It is high time the two centrist parties buried the old Civil War hatchet and instead served the people. For all the "turning in graves" of the old guard in both parties, pragmatism should prevail and the nation should be spared the chaotic patchwork of inherently unstable groups.
But such a potential 'grand alliance' cannot be business as usual. Fianna Fáil will have to be true to its campaign slogan promising a fair and decent society. There can be no dusting down of the outgoing government's programme to be propped up by a fresh partner. That would be to scandalously defy the electorate's clearly expressed views. And it would be a missed opportunity.
The Coalition and its policies have been comprehensively rejected in a free and fair election. A new administration must, if democracy means anything, produce a new partnership agreement outlining a social vision to accompany the economic recovery. One hopes that drafting has started already.
The fact that Fianna Fáil needs Ard Fheis approval to go into any alliance with Fine Gael could provide an opportunity for a transparent national debate on these fundamental rights and how a new partnership government could vindicate them in the context of anticipated growth in the economy.
There is a wealth of strategic intelligence within the ranks of Fianna Fáil that could embrace and explore the pros and cons of this potential alliance. In 1989, Charles Haughey formed a government with his old enemy Des O'Malley that broke the mould and began a series of coalition governments with the Progressive Democrats based on an agreed programme for government negotiated by the two parties. While a shock to the system, nobody died and for over a decade the various coalitions survived.
While a diverse patchwork of Independents and small parties could theoretically be cobbled together with one or other of the big parties, it would not be stable. Anyway most of these are anti-establishment movements, more suited to opposition, protest and activism. For the next five years, Ireland needs an administration made up of experienced politicians. I have worked with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs. Unlike Sinn Féin and the hard Left, they are not obsessed by ideology and anger. They are professional politicians, with a track record of running the country.
With some creative and innovative thinking and talking, the sum of these two parties could provide a stable, experienced government that could confidently steer the country through the next five challenging years.
Fine Gael will be the biggest party; it too has a duty to think outside its cultural and historical constraints and for once listen to the electorate rather than talk at them. It has been instrumental in taking the recovery this far; it should finish the job with the other most popular party in the State, Fianna Fáil.