Wednesday 26 October 2016

Bertie Ahern: 'Kaleidoscope coalition' on cards as no clear picture likely to emerge

Published 27/02/2016 | 02:30

Independent TD Tony Gregory and Fianna Fáil leader Charlie Haughey, who struck a deal to go into government back in 1982
Independent TD Tony Gregory and Fianna Fáil leader Charlie Haughey, who struck a deal to go into government back in 1982

Politics is often about settling for the next best thing; in multi-party coalitions, it can be about settling on anything at all.

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Looking over the wreckage on the political battlefield of the last three weeks, now that the smoke has cleared, it ultimately falls to the walking wounded to fall in and put together a force strong enough to form a government. The what-might-have-beens must be set aside; putting together a government is about what has to be.

Micheál Martin took an awful lot of flak in the last few years and has come through it extremely well.

Sinn Féin will also have reason to be happy with their impressive haul of seats. The reality is they could have got several more if the economic discussions with Gerry Adams had gone better.

I don't think Enda Kenny has been a particularly 'lucky general'. He needed a few breaks and it seems improbable that he will get them. I'm not sure how good he is at puzzles, but getting enough pieces to put a clear picture of what a prospective government will look like will be a problem.

Putting a government together is not for the faint-hearted, each component part represents a separate headache.

Getting them to fit and then trying to keep them from falling apart requires the patience of Job and the organisational skills of Noah.

Looking at the slew of opinion poll figures to date, you'd have to say Mr Kenny faces a massive task. Of course, they have been wrong before; but signs are that Fine Gael will secure in the region of 55 seats (down from 76).

Labour, as the Government's lightning rod, drew much of the fire from voters; they are being chalked down for just 10 seats (down from 36).

If Labour is hit by such a meltdown, one has to ask will they have any appetite for a return to government?

Their participation in another coalition is far from certain, as the experience of being a political crash test dummy is not something that one signs on for indefinitely.

But even if they do agree to return, Mr Kenny still needs to crawl a long way to get to the magic number of 80.

Let's allow the Social Democrats four, Renua two, and Shane Ross's alliance 14, and there will be a selection of Independents.

Of course, it's not beyond reason to imagine some kind of combination coming together, but it will make for strange bed fellows. Pride will have to be swallowed and an awful lot of lemons will have to be sucked, but some kind of sweet and sour arrangement can be done.

The question will then be: what kind of a shelf-life can it be expected to have?

But the fundamental point is that the people have spoken and there is an obligation to form a government.

Agreeing a plan for government will also be difficult. Should the Coalition fall shy of government by more than 10 seats, then they can not argue that their programme was accepted by the people. So nothing is going to be easy.

Back in February 1982, Fianna Fáil won 81 seats. In order to make up the numbers, Charlie Haughey secured the support of the Independent Socialist TD Tony Gregory, the Independent Fianna Fáil TD Neil Blaney, and the three Sinn Féin The Workers Party deputies, and was appointed Taoiseach.

Ray MacSharry was our finance minister, he was resolute and tough. I was chief whip, and I can tell you that it was a nightmare. I think there was somewhere between 60 and 70 votes to get the Finance Bill through. We stuck to our guns, but even so, the government collapsed in a heap that October.

Of course, Fianna Fáil could come on board and support a minority government from the Opposition but this in all probability would amount to a temporary little arrangement.

Given that this is the centenary year of the 1916, I suspect that the new 'Kaleidoscope coalition' will be made of various disparate parts and will do well to see out the year, but they will.

I also suspect that it will represent something of a miracle if we do not find ourselves putting up posters again in 2017.

Election campaigns are gruelling and expensive.

The infantry is made up of squads of canvassers; hardy souls who give their all, taking time off work and using up holidays to support their candidate. It is tough, often thankless work.

The candidates themselves are also likely to be out on their feet. So everyone needs to gather their strengths and build up their resources to generate an appetite for the next great engagement.

It is difficult to understand how Mr Kenny or his supporters did not recognise the error of their ways in hitting the road with such a rickety election wagon, which was at best rolling along on three wheels.

The voters had put up with a very bumpy ride, but they expected a cushion, given that the journey had been so hard. Instead of being offered something more comfortable, they were told to be happy with what they had and that there was plenty more of the same to come.

And there was the rub, people didn't want more of the same.

I confidently expect that Fianna Fáil will have done very well, given where we were last time around.

Now that you, the voters, have given your verdict, all fates are now in the hands of another unsung army of heroes who operate behind the scenes, and without whom all of us would be left in the dark - I refer, of course, to the tallymen.

With their clipboards and pencils, they are the sentinels of the ballot box. They tick off the first preferences on each vote, adding up the totals.

Without them, the mysteries of the single transferable vote and the complexities of proportional representation - based on population numbers per constituency - would be almost impenetrable.

It is their ready reckoning that gets us the results. In the US and in the UK, the results are known within hours but the excitement is less dramatic.

Given the pace of change and the relentless march of technology in every aspect of our lives, there is something reassuring in knowing that the quiet tallyman or woman can rub out even the most exalted political career with just the stub of a pencil.

Now that's democracy at work.

To the winners, I'd like to say well done; and to the losers, unlike the hurlers on the ditch, at least you togged out and gave it a go.

Irish Independent

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