Saturday 1 October 2016

The centre still holds - so FF should make hay

More than half of Irish voters place themselves in the centre - putting FF in a strong position, says Eoin O'Malley

Eoin O'Malley

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Fresh start: The newly elected Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail of Fianna Fail addresses the chamber during the first sitting of the 32nd Dail, which took place last week. Photo: Maxwells
Fresh start: The newly elected Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail of Fianna Fail addresses the chamber during the first sitting of the 32nd Dail, which took place last week. Photo: Maxwells

Some elections are easy to read. In 2011 there was a clear rejection of Fianna Fail. Fine Gael and Labour were in a lucky position to benefit from that rejection. Other elections are harder to interpret. This election was one of them, and the failure to elect a new government on Thursday confirms that. This did not stop many in the Dail - and many commentators - claiming with great certainty that election 2016 was a victory for their own pet position.

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It was variously described as a victory for social democracy, a victory for pro-lifers, a victory for women, a victory for the water charges protests, a victory for the radical left; it was a victory for whatever you're having yourself.

But just because election results aren't clear doesn't mean some conclusions can't be drawn: It was a rejection of the government, and in the RTE exit poll there was some consensus that the Government made a mistake in focusing more on tax cuts than restoring public services.

Fine Gael and Labour, by necessity, had implemented severe cuts to public sector spending. Some of this stripped excess fat off the public wage bill, but undoubtedly people felt it also hit the quality of services.

The Government had started to put money back in, but the opposition message that the recovery was unfair obviously resonated with enough people. People wanted more money put into public services.

The Irish weren't lurching to the left. After years of austerity they were swinging back to the centre.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the party that made the most gains in this election, Fianna Fail, placed itself as a more centrist alternative to a right-wing Fine Gael.

The same exit poll asked people to place themselves on a left-right scale. Over half of the respondents placed themselves in the centre, with 20pc on the left and 20pc on the right.

For those who supported Independents, over 60pc place themselves in the centre. This didn't surprise me. Other surveys in Ireland have shown no discernible shift to the left or right over the past 15 years.

Election 2016 was a victory for the centre ground in Irish politics. It's just that support in the centre has fragmented, being divided between many parties and Independents.

What does this mean for government formation? We sometimes talk about 'the numbers' in the formation of a government. We assume that the largest party has the best chance of creating a government, but that the government has to have 'the numbers'. What this actually means is that we have to have a cohesive majority. So no government can be formed that makes up its majority with support from the left and the right and ignores the centre ground.

For a government to work, it has to have the 'median voter', or the voter who is in the middle in the distribution of views on the political spectrum. If we assume that Fine Gael is to the right of Fianna Fail, then Fianna Fail has the 'median' TD in the 32nd Dail. Political science would suggest that the government that is formed should include Fianna Fail.

Now political science is often wrong. As Einstein observed, "politics is more difficult than physics." The physicist doesn't have to contend with gut forces in the stomachs of politicians and voters.

If the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition is still ruled out - and there are good reasons why it might be - then, in a choice between a minority Fine Gael government and minority Fianna Fail government, it is the Fianna Fail option that could have the best chance of success. That is because, in shifting policy back to the centre, Fianna Fail can draw on the support of the large number of centrist TDs in the Dail.

In the next few weeks Micheal Martin could put together a limited programme of measures that could get majority support in the new Dail. For instance, there is broad support for investment in infrastructure in rural Ireland. Changes that increased the supply of homes would be hard for TDs to vote against. It could even allow a referendum on the Eighth Amendment if a majority of TDs wanted this. It does not have to advocate a particular position.

Even if there is no agreement on the future of Irish Water, Fianna Fail could put pressure on Sinn Fein to support a change to the water charges regime. It might embarrass Sinn Fein if it were to vote against a new policy that increased the free allocation to families with children or old people. This is bringing the policy closer to Sinn Fein's position. If the party is serious about the needs of its voters, it would have to support it.

The advantage of government is that it sets the agenda. It can carefully construct policy proposals that draw broad support from the centre, and that are hard for Fine Gael and Sinn Fein to oppose. Of course it is likely that Sinn Fein isn't serious about improving policy. Its stance so far has been to ensure the party's strategic goal of becoming a mainstream party.

As ever there are risks and opportunities in this. Governing isn't popular these days, but with GDP growth at close to 8pc last year and all the really tough decisions already made, this isn't the worst time to govern, even in an unstable arrangement.

It would be hard. Being a minister would be no cakewalk. They would have to negotiate everything with opposition TDs and committees. But this might be no bad thing.

For this to work, Fianna Fail should remind people that it is helping get the country out of a jam; it could call itself the 'National Government' and in doing deals with some smaller parties and Independents accept that at times it will fail. Those failures need not hurt it. Voters might accept the need for a second election in a year's time and reward its efforts with increased support.

The risks associated with an immediate second election are that it may not produce a different result. It would be easier to agree a stable deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail then, but the drawbacks with such a deal - not least leaving Sinn Fein to lead the opposition - would still be there.

People are saying that Ireland's politics is now unstable. However, the opposite might be true.

With no government, policies cannot be changed. Even though Irish voters are centrist, it doesn't mean they don't want change. If the political centre doesn't respond to the needs of people, it can be eaten by ideologues on the left and right. Too much stability at a time when people demand change leads people to look to populists, as has happened in Greece, Spain, France and the US.

The future shape of the Irish party system depends on the choices for government made in the coming weeks. But it's more important than that. Despite our problems, we've become a healthier, wealthier, more interesting and more tolerant place in the last 30 years. Ireland's chance of remaining a stable, safe, cohesive society is high, but it is not guaranteed.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is a senior lecturer in political science at the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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