Saturday 17 March 2018

'Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil won't last. They will eat each other alive'

Joan Burton yesterday Photo: Frank McGrath
Joan Burton yesterday Photo: Frank McGrath
Joan Burton with INM Group Political Editor Kevin Doyle Photo: Frank McGrath
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

With days to go before General Election 2011 the Labour Party sent out a warning shot to voters: don't risk giving Fine Gael an overall majority.

The public listened and as a result we've had five years of a Fine Gael-Labour Coalition that swerved left and right before insisting they had put the economy back on the track.

Now, four days from polling, Tánaiste Joan Burton finds herself warning against a very different outcome, one that had until recent months seemed unimaginable: 'The Grand Coalition'.

In a first acknowledgment that she doesn't believe it's beyond Enda Kenny to enter government with Fianna Fáil, Ms Burton told the Irish Independent the two parties would "eat each other alive" and leave Sinn Féin as the leaders of the Opposition.

"I don't think it would be stable. I don't know how long it would last for. In theory it would be very easy to match the objectives of both parties, but without a mandate, how will the supporters of each party feel as each of them feels they are being eaten alive?" she said.

"It does make Sinn Féin potentially the leaders of the Opposition. Is that what Fianna Fáil voters want? Is that what Fine Gael voters want? I don't think so."

The past fortnight has brought a tough campaign for the 67-year-old who is battling on three fronts: to rescue her Coalition, her party and her own seat.

All her cards are on the table in terms of what Labour can offer people over the next five years and, despite the poor poll ratings, there is no rabbit left to pull out of a hat.

Asked why her party was being punished despite months of positive economic news, she argued that people were "still in a post-traumatic shock period".

"I think that they hold everybody involved in politics responsible for it [the crash] with probably the exception of the Independents because the Independents just say, 'big country stuff has nothing to do with us'."

Over the coming days Ms Burton intends to talk up the idea that "only Labour can" when it comes to fair tax cuts, fair investment and fair government.

She will seek to pull her party out from under Fine Gael's shadow, saying that despite their vote transfer pact they are "sharply different".

"For example, our approach to tax is very different to Fine Gael. Our approach to social issues is quite different to Fine Gael.

"There is a process of discussion after the election by which a programme for government is put together.

"It is being taken for granted that it is easy to put a cohesive, lasting and stable government together out of parties who have a mandate from the people to be subsequently involved in a coalition," she said.

But the Tánaiste added that Fine Gael and Labour would put a team together to go the full course again, unlike a potential Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil alternative.

"I don't think that option will last for very long. I think the chances are that there will be an extra General Election and that is why voters need to be very clear that one of the principal questions is 'do you want this Government elected, because for all of the issues we have not been able to address this Government has worked'.

"Government is not a debating chamber. It is not a debating club. Government is actually about managing the resources of the country and making decisions in the best interests of the country over a long period of time."

She said that while "in theory" Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had similar ideals, they would not have a mandate to negotiate a government since that proposition hadn't been put to the people.

"They are saying that they are ruling out each other. Where is the glue and where is the cement?" she asked.

In recent days Fine Gael has revised its seat target down to anywhere between 55 and 65, which means Labour would need to bring in at least 20 for the Government to be returned.

"My target a week out is very close to that. I have been out meeting people and I get a different sense than in the polls," Ms Burton argued.

She doesn't want to have to rely on Independents because they would come "not just with a shopping list but a shopping trolley into Government Buildings".

"We are in much tighter financial times, so how do you deal with the clamour of each Independent who will face from their constituency 'me first'? The rest of the country won't like that."

The Labour Party is the oldest in the State but has never faced such stiff competition on 'the Left' with the rise of groupings such as the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit.

But perhaps unsurprisingly she saves her strongest attack for Sinn Féin who she blames for "a remorseless and relentless" campaign against her party. Asked why Labour's election message had been so badly received, she said: "I think that part of that has been because there has been a very strategic focus by parties who describe themselves as populist and left-wing, obviously Sinn Féin and some of the other groupings, to target the Labour Party in a remorseless and relentless way."

She said they were going after Labour in a cynical attempt to block any actual examination of their own policies.

"One of Sinn Féin's earliest attacks on the Labour Party in government was to absolutely condemn how unfair and dreadful a tax the USC was. There wasn't enough bad [stuff] that they could say about it.

"Then they turned tail and now it is a centrepiece of their policy that anyone earning more than €20,000 will not get any relief from the USC in any way. In some ways that debate has been hidden by the remorselessness of their attacks."

Ms Burton knows that tomorrow night's TV debate on RTÉ is essentially a do-or-die for her political career.

Her plan is to talk about coalition options - something that all the party leaders have tried to avoid since long before the campaign began.

"I would like voters to reflect on how people are going to behave in government," she said, adding that brought her back to the question of Fianna Fáil's record in government.

She will also be taking aim at Gerry Adams who she believes got "a lot of cheap laughs" last week by trying to put herself, Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin "in the same box as the three amigos".

"Then I thought to myself, who are his three amigos? Slab Murphy, the people who murdered Jean McConville and would not give her body up for decades, and there will be a cast of thousands in his network of Sinn Féin and the IRA who could audition for the third part... I think that this is not an election that is as easily read as other elections have been. It is not a sunny election."

Irish Independent

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