Saturday 16 December 2017

Fine Gael could hold the levers of power for the next 15 years

The end result of election may be the creation of a monolith likely to be just as resistant as Fianna Fail was, says Celia Larkin

'There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to institute a new order of things' -- Niccolo Machiavelli

What now for Irish politics? Like any frenzy, it's when the dust settles we begin to see the picture emerge. And what a picture. The face of politics in Ireland has changed totally.

From the day the election was called, it was clear that this was going to be an election the like of which we had never seen before. Fine Gael approached it with the attitude of a party expecting to be in government, not a party expecting to be in coalition where compromise was inevitable and would provide a plausible excuse for not implementing policies presented during the campaign.

It laid out its 'five-point plan' (repeatedly), told us times would be hard, with no apology or deference, to its Labour Party counterparts. Labour was slow off the blocks, believing too enthusiastically the early opinion polls and hoping for the Gilmore Gale to carry it along. In contrast to Fine Gael, it acted like a minority party, was less measured in policy statements, partly because it was so confident of holding the balance of power in the 31st Dail. It was a bold strategy that, but for the late U-turn when it cosied up to Fine Gael, almost backfired on it.

So here we are. All the eggs are in one basket now.

I heard many comments on how Fianna Fail didn't comprehend the scale of the disaster that had befallen it. However, one has to wonder if the weight of responsibility bestowed on Fine Gael has registered with all members of the newly regnant party. One Fine Gael TD was quoted as saying " ... if we have the mess cleaned up by the time of the next election we will have a real chance of a second term". As the numbers stack up for Fine Gael, it is likely to have not only a second but a third term in office -- whether it likes it or not. It's like the old joke, first prize is a week in Butlins, second prize is two weeks in Butlins.

Never before in the history of the State has the electorate been so bereft of a cohesive opposition, capable, with a few additions, of forming an alternative government when an election is called. The reality is, we will have a Fine Gael -led majority government with no viable alternative for 10 and maybe even 15 years.

What will that do for democracy?

It is a pity, as was stated by some Fine Gael backbenchers, that Enda didn't at least explore the possibility of single-party government supported by like-minded Independents. Because his focus, and that of his senior party members, is understandably on stability and on a second term in office, the end result is the creation of a monolith likely to be just as resistant to outside influence as Fianna Fail ever was over the past 20 years.

Fianna Fail is now a minority party. Part of a fractured opposition, made up of far-right, far-left and local constituency-focused representatives. Its position as a 'catch-all' party redundant, given its inability to 'catch' even the 25 per cent that is considered to be its core vote. Its traditional support from republican-minded citizens, small farmers, small business, public sector and manual workers is scattered to the winds. Listening to the electorate, it was evident that a substantial number of people voted against Fianna Fail rather than in favour of an alternative. Who is representing them now? What party or individuals gained their votes? Can Fianna Fail win them back or does it need to rethink its position on the left/right scale?

Minority parties normally hold an ideological position, like the Green Party on environment issues or the Progressive Democrats on taxation. The last time Fianna Fail repositioned itself was in 1937, and even then it had more representatives than it does now.

Of course the rebuilding of the party will be made all the more difficult because of its reduced circumstances. Parties are State-funded according to the number of seats they hold. Fianna Fail holds only a quarter of the seats it won in the 2007 election. You can get off the ferry at Rosslare and once you leave Wexford, where John Brown was elected, drive along the coast all the way to the Border without meeting another elected Fianna Fail TD. The possibility of swelling the parliamentary party numbers by winning seats in the Seanad is equally as bleak. It just doesn't have the numbers in the local authorities to win any more than 12 or 13 seats.

There is no doubt it only has itself to blame. Its handling of the current crises and lack of communication with the general public was inexcusable, and the electorate told it so, in no uncertain terms.

Micheal Martin has his work cut out. I'm sure there are few who envy him his position. He has to build his party from a point where it hardly has sufficient numbers elected to the Dail to form a front bench. And it has to provide a credible opposition to a government with massive resources at its disposal. A daunting task, but one he must believe he can tackle. Without that belief the party might just as well fold its tent and walk away.

The next two years will tell a lot. The local elections are due in 2014. It is imperative for "the very survival of the party" to use Martin's own words, that Fianna Fail make substantial gains in those elections. As a party, it needs to re-build trust in the electorate, consolidate the 17 per cent support it has and win back at least another 20 per cent. It will take time, hard work, courage and tenacity. Fianna Fail is down. Time will tell if it's out for good.

Sunday Independent

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