Wednesday 28 September 2016

Hypocrisy - for the sake of national interest

Kenny's strategy goes back to what the election was all about - who was going to lead the Opposition, writes Ronan Fanning

Ronan Fanning

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

NO DEAL: Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, right, rejected Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny’s partnership offer. Photo: RollingNews.ie
NO DEAL: Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, right, rejected Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny’s partnership offer. Photo: RollingNews.ie

'Why does Enda need the Independents if he wants to go into government with Fianna Fail?" an astute friend with minimal interest in the cut and thrust of Irish party politics asked me at lunch last Thursday, before Micheal Martin had rejected the acting Taoiseach's offer of a partnership government.

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The question goes straight to the heart of Mr Kenny's strategic hypocrisy. "Enda knows that there is not a snowball's chance in hell of Fianna Fail's accepting his offer," I replied. "He also knows that he will have to re-enter into negotiations with the Independents in order to form a government and he has to smooth their ruffled feathers and avoid damaging their already grotesquely inflated egos."

Another hypocrisy is the threat that the only alternative to a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail government is an early election. This nonsense has been fostered by the media's passion for a grand coalition, a passion particularly prevalent in RTE, whose news anchors and pundits alike keep telling us that the Dail arithmetic proves that there is no other alternative. The people have voted for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in broadly equal numbers and the national interest, they solemnly intone, therefore demands that they form a coalition government, despite the fact that because the people had so voted does not mean that they expected or wanted the two parties to make common cause.

What so many in the media seem to forget is that Mr Kenny cannot call an election. Although a Taoiseach is effectively empowered to dissolve the Dail, an acting Taoiseach has no such power. The distinction is spelt out unequivocally in article 13-2 of the Constitution. Article 13-2-1 declares that the Dail 'shall be summoned and dissolved by the President on the advice of the Taoiseach' but article 13-2-2 declares that 'the President may in his absolute discretion refuse to dissolve Dail Eireann on the advice of a Taoiseach who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dail Eireann'.

President Michael D Higgins's propensity for pushing the Constitutional constraints limiting presidential freedom of action to their outer limits has been the subject of much recent comment, not least in this newspaper. In this case there are no constraints of any kind. The presidential power to deny a Taoiseach who cannot command a majority in the Dail is one of the very few powers upon which our Constitution gives the President 'absolute discretion'.

Mr Kenny's political antennae are not so blunted that he does not understand that President Higgins would find the temptation to exercise that power irresistible. He would be right to do so, moreover, not least because the opinion poll in last week's Sunday Independent clearly shows that the result of another election, if held immediately, would be much the same.

Nor should we overlook the provision in article 13-2-3 of the Constitution declaring that, 'The President may at any time, after consultation with the Council of State, convene a meeting of either or both of the Houses of the Oireachtas.' While the President is obliged to consult the Council of State, he is under no obligation to accept its advice. Yet again the President's track record suggests that the temptation to convene such a meeting, which would be hugely damaging to the prestige of the acting Taoiseach, would prove irresistible if the present deadlock continues indefinitely.

The final and unrelated reason why it is so improbable that Mr Kenny would seek a dissolution is the likelihood, in the light of all that has happened in the last 40 days, that Fianna Fail would be the principal beneficiaries of an early election.

But let me return to the near-hysterical insistence of the media that the national interest demands the formation of a grand coalition. The national interest requires no such thing, but it does demand that both major parties act with due regard for the shape of Irish party politics in the years ahead. What is at issue is the central point I made in an article in this newspaper before the election. The election was unique because opinion poll after opinion poll clearly showed in advance that it would produce a hung Dail; the central issue, I argued, was that the election was not about who would form the Government but who would lead the Opposition.

Micheal Martin understands this and, coupled with what Fianna Fail regards as its unbreakable pre-election pledge not to enter into a coalition with Fine Gael, it is the key to understanding his strategy.

He has already spelt out his party's willingness to facilitate the formation of a Fine Gael minority government. Assuming that Mr Kenny can get the votes of at least seven or eight Independents, doubtless sweetened in some cases by the prospect of ministerial office, for such an enterprise, such a government can be established by Fianna Fail's simply abstaining from another vote for Taoiseach, whether next week or at some time thereafter.

The survival of such a government, at least in the short term, would clearly depend upon its willingness not to introduce a budget or other major legislative measures that were anathema to Fianna Fail. Subject to this caveat, there is no reason why a stable minority government could not function for at least two years. Such an outcome would clarify not just the shape of the government, but the role of Micheal Martin as the unquestioned Leader of the Opposition.

The new rules about the reduction in numbers of parties having speaking rights in the Dail, will give a more prominent role to the leaders of smaller parties. The Labour Party, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, the Social Democrats, the Greens would be competing with Sinn Fein for air time in the coverage of Dail debates and in political programmes on radio and television. Although Sinn Fein will be the second largest Opposition party, Mr Adams will be denied the prominence he so covets as Leader of the Opposition, a role that would have fallen into his lap if Mr Martin had been foolish enough to fall into Mr Kenny's crude trap. Such an outcome - which may well have the extra benefit of cutting Sinn Fein down to size as one of a handful of Opposition parties - is truly in the national interest.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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