Sunday 19 November 2017

John McGuinness: Election hopefuls had better be ready for a night of dancing with the stars

It will be a matchmaking event with no equal when the results are tallied and the waltz begins, writes John McGuinness

DECISION, DECISIONS: Mary Hanafin, with a poster depicting Fianna Fail’s election candidates, at the party’s ard fheis at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren
DECISION, DECISIONS: Mary Hanafin, with a poster depicting Fianna Fail’s election candidates, at the party’s ard fheis at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren

John McGuinness

Will Fine Gael tango with Fianna Fail? Why is Gerry smiling at Joan? Why are Shane, Mick and Clare in a huddle in the mineral bar? Do you really think he loves me? Isn't she gorgeous? Isn't yer man from Cork a great dancer? Look at the blonde fella from Mayo, I think he wants to walk me home! Getta away outta that willya?

It isn't the Ballroom of Romance in the 1960s. It's the Dail immediately after the 2016 election, febrile and packed with a passion for ... power.

No matter what any of them say, they want to walk out with the most suitable partner in the place, even the one they told all their friends they hated.

In fact, it might be better if they distrusted one another, and had the strength and good sense to keep each other on the straight and narrow.

It is a truth universally recognised that power is what all politicians want to get their hands on. And they will walk across broken glass to get it, because it confers the opportunity to get things done, make a difference and, hopefully, prolong their careers, which can get in the way of everything else.

What restrains them is that a wrong choice could cost them their very existence. When the frog that had agreed to carry a scorpion across the river was stung mid-way, and asked his passenger "why" as they sank. The scorpion replied: "Stinging is what scorpions do". So it is with politics.

It isn't dislike that keeps parties from joining a coalition, it is self-preservation. Behind all the posturing, gestures of dismissal and rhetorical flourishes, there is fear, and desire - a longing for all that power can confer. So less of the posturing lads, the public see it for what it is. Be brave, seek power, and use it properly.

The Irish people will shortly decide who gets to join in this national matchmaking event. All parties in attendance will have been elected democratically in a republic. They are all entitled to respect, if not love. If a coalition has to be formed, it is because the people have willed it.

I believe no party should absent itself from the negotiating table, cast aspersions on the democratic credentials of another, or rule anything out until all avenues have been explored. That is politics. You have to fight for the power to deliver what you believe in and, if you lose, in opposition you also have to fight to ensure power is not abused by those who have it.

It is clear that Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour are within a few degrees of each other in the centre ground of Irish politics. I have said before that there isn't the thickness of a ballot paper between the first two, and Labour isn't that far away.

Fianna Fail made some big mistakes during its last tenure of office. Too much was left to weak regulators and bullish banks. Firm leadership was absent, at a time the financial system of the world nearly collapsed, and nearly brought Fianna Fail with it. But Fianna Fail has regrouped and is trying hard, with some success, to regain the confidence of the public.

However, Fianna Fail may shortly be faced with having to find a loud voice in an opposition composed of mainly radical disparate elements, or the muscle and determination to deal with a partnership with Fine Gael in government. What it should not do is abandon the possibility of shared power without making an effort to obtain it through negotiation.

Fine Gael was dreadful in opposition between 2007 to 2011: weak, ineffectual and lazy. I was doing a better job than Fine Gael TDs were. Good luck, rather than competence, got it into government on a wave of anger, where it benefited from both Brian Lenihan's budget and the Troika's insistence on austerity, which kept it focused ... until recently.

In government, Fine Gael did not deliver the reforms that the country very badly needs. So it promises the same again in this election. It will not be able to form a government alone, which is no bad thing. It needs the pressure that only a strong partner can provide.

Labour is wandering lonely as a cloud between the choice of a hard, tiny place in government and a hard, tiny place in opposition, possibly with Fianna Fail, but Sinn Fein, and radical groups with technicolor views and extreme policies, are likely to overshadow both of them.

Sinn Fein is simply riding a wave of slightly declining popular support, waiting for the opportunity to camp under the damp tent of mainstream politics and build a platform that is less choleric, and more economically sound, than their current edifice, which has dangerous planks that it should, and will, discard.

The trouble for Labour and the far left is that they may not be able to survive the shock of a smiling Mary Lou whispering beguiling politics into the ears of their followers, as parliamentary politics moves towards a more rational right/left division.

The problem for Independents is that they are usually, but not always, single issue sole traders, and sometimes lack experience. Nothing wrong with that: they bring passion, determination and disruptive behaviour to the Dail that I am all for - the Dail needs more humanity and less rigidity - smothering small voices with petty rules is generally not a good idea. Governments need to be rattled.

But single issues can die down, passion can cool and determination and being difficult can only take you so far, before the Dail mill grinds you down, and the reason why parties are necessary for discipline and progress becomes clear. People crying in a wilderness can get lost, or get sore throats and sore feet, and are often eaten by large animals.

The outcome of the election may well be that all parties in the the Dail will need to realign their relationship to power and one another, now and in the future, with Sinn Fein seeking control of the left, and Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and, probably, Labour wondering what to do, because the centre can't hold all of them.

We will soon know. Once the electorate delivers the tickets, it will be interesting to see who walks across the floor, for a slow waltz, and asks, "Any chance of a dance?". We might be surprised by who collects their coats together for the walk home, but let's hope the relationship lasts for five years.

Ah, go on! Come, dance together Joan, Micheal, Enda and Gerry, and all those quare fellas over there making noise, and we will see who is still standing when the music stops.

Be careful who you give the tickets to!

John McGuinness is the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and Fianna Fail TD in Carlow/Kilkenny.

Sunday Independent

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