Why I believe Fianna Fáil deserves credit for its role in forming a Government
Published 18/05/2016 | 02:30
After the longest gestation period in Irish political history, we finally have a Government. While many criticised the delays, one thing is absolutely clear - Irish politics remains the art of the possible.
Who would have predicted it? A Government elected with 59 votes out of 158. A Government facilitated by the leading opposition party, a party that actually doubled its seat tally in the recent election. And a Government where Independents make up a significant presence and hold key ministries. All in all, this is quite an achievement given the real prospect of another election that could have resulted in a plague on all your houses from the electorate's viewpoint.
Enda Kenny deserves his place in history. He is now the longest-serving and most successful Fine Gael leader since WT Cosgrave. History will also be kind to Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton, and especially Brendan Howlin - the unsung hero of the last administration.
The process of forming this Government was a complex operation. It took time and considerable patience. Real political skill was shown by all of the negotiators to try to form a stable Government after the most indecisive electoral result ever. Nobody knows how long it will last, but if it genuinely reforms the way that decisions are taken and reforms the Dáil, there is no reason why this Government cannot be successful. Actually, some of the best governments in the history of the State have been minority governments.
Now the Government is in office, it needs to hit the ground running. Fianna Fáil's approach to water charges, meanwhile, reminds me of the young St Augustine - in favour of chastity, but not now. Fianna Fáil will continue to exercise a large measure of influence over the Government, the Dáil and the political agenda.
I am going to make just two predictions as this Government starts its term.
One, it will last much longer than people think. Taking a Government out in this political climate is not as easy as some in the populist part of the opposition might think. The agreement reached with Fianna Fáil should last for three budgets - otherwise, the party will look foolish and could pay a heavy price if a snap election is called for purely political reasons.
And my second prediction is that the new political environment will be as challenging and difficult for the opposition as it will be for the Government. Because the Government cannot govern on its own, it requires openness to new ideas and an ability to do things differently.
In Regina Doherty, the Taoiseach has selected one of the most impressive TDs for the crucial role of Chief Whip. If the opposition just plays normal opposition politics and refuses to meet the Government at least halfway, then it's the opposition that may well be exposed. Also, the competition within the opposition should be fascinating to watch.
I for one believe that Fianna Fáil deserves credit for what it has agreed in facilitating the formation of this Government. In many respects, the party had most to lose from a second election. And be clear - re-electing Enda Kenny and Fine Gael last week is not without risks for Fianna Fáil. It will forever be attacked for effectively putting Fine Gael, the old enemy, back into Government and, more importantly, keeping my party there until a time of its choosing.
I know many in Fine Gael would have been happy for a full partnership government between our party and Fianna Fáil. It certainly would have been stable for a five-year term. But at what cost for the future of democratic politics in Ireland?
That government would have included a rotating Taoiseach and effectively a 50/50 share of government between both parties. Had Fianna Fáil gone for the grand coalition, it would have been the end of centre ground politics in Ireland. It would have handed Sinn Féin the mantle as leaders of the opposition and a presumptive government in waiting.
Well, Fianna Fáil was not prepared to do that. It saw, like the rest of us, what happened to the SDLP in Northern Ireland when people didn't stand up to Sinn Féin's brand of aggressive bully-boy politics. Sinn Féin will say anything and do anything to win populist votes.
Fianna Fáil TDs stood their ground against Sinn Féin and in doing that, have served Irish democracy well. In staying in opposition, the party has also helped to preserve the advances the country has made in coming out of this crisis. We are well positioned to come back strongly as a country but the Government must be prepared to share and also be prepared to give credit to the role that others are playing, specifically Fianna Fáil.
Now some in my party are deeply suspicious of Fianna Fáil. Trust locally and nationally is in short supply. But we shouldn't underestimate the serious risks the party has taken to help this Government be formed.
One other lesson that recent Irish politics teaches us is that parties that seem to be annihilated by the electorate can and do come back. Both the Green Party and Fianna Fáil have shown that in the recent election. The same can happen in my view for the Labour Party. Sinn Féin won't have it all its own way now.
From the genuine hard left - members of whom call Sinn Féin politics sectarian - to the centre left, the party will find it increasingly difficult to simply say no in a Dáil which will demand genuine solutions. But in Fianna Fáil staying out of Government and in refusing to move aside for Sinn Féin, a huge step has been taken. It's a courageous act on the part of Fianna Fáil.
Brian Hayes is an MEP for Fine Gael