History frowns on new parties, but it does give lessons
Published 12/06/2015 | 02:30
History frowns on new Irish political parties. Ever since the foundation of the independent Irish State they have sprung up like mushrooms and quickly disappeared, usually without anything in the way of "achievements" to mark their passage.
Some served for short periods in governments of various hues. Most are now forgotten. The Progressive Democrats, who once seemed genuinely promising, are as dead as Clann na Poblachta.
Throughout, Ireland lacked something more or less taken for granted in post-World War Two Western Europe: a large, strong and cohesive social democratic party.
We have always had two centre-right parties, and we lately acquired a third, Renua. Are current events on "the other side of the House" likely to change that?
For several months now, Deputy Shane Ross has been talking to Independent deputies about the possibility of forming what he calls a loose alliance. Simultaneously, talks have taken place between Deputies Catherine Murphy, Róisín Shortall and Stephen Donnelly. These have now resulted in agreement to form the nucleus of a new party.
One reason for the prolongation of the process has been the tendency of those on the left to regard Mr Donnelly as "too right-wing". That is to misunderstand the man himself and the whole nature of present-day politics.
Fine Gael claims that the economic crisis has ended, largely due to its own intelligence and fortitude. Economists regard the claim as nonsense, and I agree.
The Government's fiscal policy is far too loose.
Regardless of their own ideological leanings, all sensible people - and Mr Donnelly is a very sensible person - can see the need for more prudence.
What, then, should be the priority for the new party, assuming that it expands to an extent that would give it real influence?
Ms Shortall has already named it. She says that "we must put integrity at the centre of politics."
The Fine Gael-Labour coalition has done some genuinely good things. However, the latter part of its tenure of office has been marked by a deluge of controversies and scandals reminiscent of Fianna Fáil at its worst.
These have gone hand in hand with truly shocking misgovernment, again reminiscent of Fianna Fáil in office.
Bad decisions and administrative ineffectiveness cost us billions in public money. They also damage our reputation.
I cannot remember a time when we attracted more frequent and severe criticism from the European Union and important think-tanks. Yet again, Fine Gael has emulated Fianna Fáil in ignoring or denying the Government's faults.
Labour for its part has concentrated on promoting the Liberal Agenda.
It has succeeded brilliantly. The outstanding example has been the Same-Sex Marriage Referendum. But bigger issues still have to be addressed.
I would expect to see an abortion reform bill in the lifetime of the next government.
In all other important respects Labour's influence is very limited. And time is running out.
After the next general election, it should reject any invitation to join a government and instead seek allies in the new party and among the independent deputies.
There will be huge difficulties in the way of any new alignment. First, money. Under the very restrictive rules on donations now in place, it will be next to impossible to raise sufficient funds to fight election campaigns.
Secondly, discipline. You can see the logic of the 'loose alliance' proposed by Shane Ross. We might all agree that Dáil deputies should have more freedom, especially freedom of conscience, but parties must have some agreed level of discipline.
Thirdly - in the event of the formation of a party with a large Labour component - relations with the trade unions.
'Social partnership' in the Fianna Fáil sense is dead. Hard cash has replaced it. We must ask ourselves whether we can afford the enormous sums the Government intends to devote to restoring public service pay scales.
Answer: No, we cannot.
Finally, but crucially, Deputies Murphy, Shortall and Donnelly, and any allies they may find, must look for models. They should take care not to look in the wrong place.
By "the wrong place" I mean, chiefly, Britain.
The integrity demanded by Ms Shortall must mean more than good and honest administration.
Assuredly it should mean balanced budgets - but not balanced budgets attained in the manner favoured by Chancellor George Osborne, which amounts to squeezing the poor. There are many fairer ways of raising the few billion he needs.
On the other side of the House of Commons, the scene looks even worse.
The British Labour Party faces a leadership election. It has not decided on a date - months away - or on who will be entitled to vote. Still, candidates have begun to line up. They openly declare themselves right-wingers or left-wingers. The left-wingers are allied with the trade unions.
These are the same unions whose votes made Ed Miliband leader of the party.
They thereby undid much of the good work done in the past, against the odds, by Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair.
If at first you don't succeed - try, try to fail again!
If Irish social democracy ever gets off the ground - and the Murphys, Shortalls and Donnellys surely deserve to take wing - I think we can rely on them to look at horrible examples and take the right lessons from them.