Wednesday 17 December 2014

Merger of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would be a disaster for democracy

Published 09/08/2013 | 17:00

Oh how the once mighty have fallen. We hardly required further proof of Fianna Fail's epic plummet from grace. But, in Mary O'Rourke's advocacy of a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael coalition this week, we got it nonetheless.

Twenty-four years ago this summer, Fianna Fail was convulsed by the decision to go into government with the PDs.

Members – including some in the Cabinet – were outraged at Charlie's Haughey's shattering of the party's 'core value' of never going into a coalition.

But even those alienated by what they saw as Haughey's treachery could never have imagined that one day circumstances might force Fianna Fail to coalesce with the old enemy of Fine Gael.

That supposed "temporary little arrangement" with the PDs evolved into a series of coalitions. Labour, the PDs (for two further terms) and then a combination of the PDs and the Greens all took turns governing with Fianna Fail.

So much so that, just a few years ago, concerns were being raised about a de facto one-party state. Fianna Fail, it seemed, would be in government in perpetuity. Only the junior partner would change. Fine Gael, three decades without an election win, seemed destined to be always out in the cold.

But that was before the crash when everything changed.

Back in 1989, Fianna Fail needed the six additional PD TDs to get to the magic 83-seat majority figure.

Such was Fianna Fail's wipe-out at the last election, it would currently need more than 10 times that number from any partner. Forget the smaller parties. There's simply no viable coalition option for Fianna Fail, other than Fine Gael.

It's not just Mary O'Rourke who thinks it's time to explore this option. It is being privately discussed among top Fianna Fail figures (though not everybody is keen).

The bookmakers have an FG-FF coalition as the most likely government after the next general election, with odds as tight as 5-4.

Many on the left of politics have long advocated an FF-FG link-up. They say it would end civil war politics and bring about the kind of left-right divide traditional across Europe.

Leaving aside the point that there has been a considerable dilution of that traditional ideological split in many EU countries, there are genuine reasons for concern about an FG-FF link up.

For starters, it's questionable how compatible the two parties would be. Yes, they've both long occupied the centre-right space but they are different. Nobody cares about the Civil War anymore, but that doesn't mean it hasn't profoundly shaped both parties.

Politics is ultimately a numbers game so old enmities would inevitably be overcome. But more practical considerations exist.

Fianna Fail would probably be the junior partner in any coalition. After 80 years of being top dog, could it stomach serving under a Fine Gael Taoiseach?

But perhaps the biggest worry about an FG-FF coalition is the impact on democracy. Despite everything that has happened, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail had over 70pc of the vote between them in the recent Meath East by-election.

Replicated nationally, a coalition of the two parties would monopolise the Dail. It could be a number of elections, at the earliest, before an FG/FF government could be unseated.

The theory that the left would inevitably grow stronger in opposition is questionable. Most Irish voters are centrist and Labour and the other left-wing parties lack the organisation to match the big two on the ground.

Nor is it certain the electorate would quickly tire of FG-FF dominance. For a 25-year period before the economic crash, the electorate kept returning Fianna Fail to power (albeit with changing partners).

The same could hold for an FG/FF coalition. We know from bitter experience, it's far from a good thing for any party or parties to be in power for such a long period.

That's not to say the bookies won't be proven right. There could well be a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition after the next election. But let's not be under any illusions. Like in 1989, political pragmatism – in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – will dictate what happens. However, what's good for individual political parties isn't necessarily good for the country.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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