Brendan Howlin: 'Two emperors with no clothes in the tale of two elections'
Published 15/01/2016 | 02:30
I've been in politics for a while. I've served in the Oireachtas since 1983.
But I've never seen an election like the one we are having now.
It's not one election, it's two.
The first election is about government. What will its policies and make-up be?
Normally, all parties are part of this discussion in one form or another. But not this time. That's what makes this election different.
Barring major upsets, we know some things about the outcome of the next election.
Fine Gael is going to be the largest party in the next Government. Enda Kenny is going to be Taoiseach. In the last poll before Christmas, Fine Gael was not far short of enjoying twice the level of support of its nearest competitor.
And because they refuse to contemplate serving with Fine Gael, both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have ruled themselves out of government. And, of course, it is mutual, because Fine Gael won't serve with them.
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are therefore fighting a separate election.
And they care more about this second election than the one to decide who runs the country.
Their election is between each other. Beating the other is the goal of their campaigns.
If Fianna Fáil outpolls Sinn Féin, it believes it will have a platform to hold off that party's 'republican' challenge and position itself for a return to the 'glory days'.
Likewise, Sinn Féin believes that were it to outpoll Fianna Fáil, that would provide a platform for it to replace Fianna Fáil as the major 'republican' party.
But unfortunately, this inter-party squabble has nothing to do with the needs of the Irish people or the need for stable, balanced government over the next five years to secure our recovery.
This party-before-country argument is not new.
It's not dissimilar in one way to the argument made by some people in my own party, Labour, that we should have stayed out of government after the last election.
Put the party first was the argument. Labour would have been the largest party in opposition and in a unique position to profit from Fine Gael's attempts to fix the economy.
Would the public have thanked us for that?
I don't think so. Firstly, few would believe that a minority Fine Gael administration would have had the capacity to survive for the last five years. Our financial problems were so acute that we needed a broad-based government to ensure our survival. Ireland needed Labour to enter Government.
Nor would Labour supporters have liked what Fine Gael would have done. Additional public spending cuts and large-scale privatisation would have been the agenda. Same-sex marriage and the X Case legislation would not.
Labour voters, and indeed those on the left who voted for others and gave us preferences, would have been entitled to ask: what's the point in voting for you if you're not prepared to use your mandate?
I know it will upset Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to be dismissed in this fashion, but either they are massively misleading the electorate about their intentions, or they are not part of the discussion about government.
Instead of one emperor with no clothes, we now have two, Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams, and both know it too.
The choice facing the electorate about government is clear. They can vote for a Fine Gael government, with possible support from 'gene-pool' parties and Independents, or they can seek to return a balanced government with Labour and Fine Gael in coalition.
Some dismiss the idea that Fine Gael could do this well. The truth is that it came close enough to an overall majority on the last occasion with a share of the vote not much larger than it achieved in recent polls. Could Fine Gael do so well that it only requires the support of a number of Independents?
Who would want such an outcome?
I think this Government has worked because it has been stable and balanced.
As social democrats, Labour put a high premium on ensuring the viability of the State in 2011. Our political philosophy has always seen the State as a force for good. No system of administration is ever perfect, but the advent of the activist state in the early years of the 20th Century has been the primary driver of progress ever since.
That is why it would be a tragedy, having fixed the public finances since 2011, if those who believe in the State were not in government at a time when the resources to make further progress are becoming available.
Let Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin face off against each other as they wish. One party, Fianna Fáil, ruined the country in the run-up to the last election; the other, Sinn Féin, would have propelled us to Armageddon had it been in power. Their place is on the opposition benches where they can do little harm.
The important race is the one for government. This country needs the balance between centre right and centre left. It needs a centre left party confident enough to enter government and provide balance to Fine Gael.
A party that recognises that for the left, too, careful management of the public finances is the bedrock of future prosperity and stability.
Only one party fits the bill and that party is Labour.
Brendan Howlin is a Labour TD and Public Expenditure Minister