Saturday 21 April 2018

A year of 'new politics' makes us think the old politics wasn't so bad after all

The general election of 2011 had been one of the great transformational contests which changed the face of Irish politics (Stock picture)
The general election of 2011 had been one of the great transformational contests which changed the face of Irish politics (Stock picture)
John Downing

John Downing

Maybe there is something to be said for "old politics" after all. Precisely one year ago tomorrow, Irish voters went to the polls and delivered a rout to the Government which had presided over a remarkable economic recovery over the previous five years. But the voters also delivered a body blow to the traditional party system as Independent candidates and smaller parties took almost half the total votes.

After a record 70 days of stop-start political horse trading, we got a minority Coalition Government led by Fine Gael, and also taking in a number of members of the Independent Alliance, with the outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny still nominally in charge. But the Government functions by grace of Fianna Fáil which has agreed to abstain on key topics.

It is all called "new politics". The upside is that the elected TDs are in theory more empowered, and the Dáil is no longer a "rubber stamp" for a Cabinet which traditionally in the past had almost total hegemony.

The downside is that this Government is low-energy and weak. And while the economic indicators are good for now, there are serious doubts about whether this, or any likely future administration, would have the political oomph to deal with the fall-out from things like the UK's departure from the EU, and a threatened radical change in President Donald Trump's US which could hit multinational companies' investments.

Issues like a housing and health crisis would benefit from stronger government. Instead we travel at the pace of the slowest in the political convoy.

The general election of 2011 had been one of the great transformational contests which changed the face of Irish politics.

Fianna Fáil, the dominant party for 80 years in the Irish State lost three quarters of its seats with an abysmal 17pc vote-share.

In 2016 the fundamental changes continued.

But it was also correctly billed by the veteran political scientists, Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh, as "the election that nobody won".

Some parties and Independents could to some degree point to progress which they styled as "victory". The two clear losers were the outgoing coalition parties of Fine Gael and Labour.

In 2011 Fine Gael had gained 25 seats and Labour 16 bringing both parties to an historic high point. On February 26, 2016, Fine Gael was 26 seats down on its previous election haul and left with 50 TDs; Labour was hit even harder going from 37 in 2011 to a mere seven TDs.

For Fianna Fáil it was "Lazarus Day" going from 21 in 2011 to 44 TDs, a remarkable feat given its ignominious exit from power in January 2011. Sinn Féin had made a breakthrough in 2011 with 14 TDs and in the run-in to February 2016 the party seemed bulging with potential. But, while it made progress, electing 23 TDs, it was down on what seemed possible going into the campaign.

The rest of the 32nd Dáil was made up of a plethora of Independents and smaller parties. The newly-formed Social Democrats returned three TDs; the Green Party reversed its 2011 wipe-out to elect two; Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit made good progress to elect six TDs; in all there were 23 Independent TDs representing every political hue. There was one positive political feature of Election 2016.

The obligation on parties to field one third women candidates was a source of controversy.

But it worked as 35 women TDs out of a total 158 were elected across all parties.

Women's representation in Dáil Éireann rose to a record 22pc, although it is still some ways from the 50:50 parity with the population gender ratio.

There were a number of factors in the mix here to explain Fine Gael's failures last February.

The main one was that the voters did not accept its contention that it had rescued the economy . Voters also found both Enda Kenny, and to a lesser extent Finance Minister Michael Noonan, not very credible as economic saviours.

It is true that they were battling the reality that any Government which had dished out economic austerity for four solid years was unlikely to be popular.

But it is also clear that its "Let's Keep the Recovery Going" slogan did not resonate outside the greater Dublin area.

Too many people felt they had not yet experienced any economic recovery.

The party structures were too top-down to vary that slogan, which became a liability.

The reality is that Fine Gael, under Enda Kenny, really blew election 2016. The previous autumn it was 10 points ahead of Fianna Fáil in the opinion polls.

Many people, including this writer, believed it was odds on to lead the next Government which would most likely be another form of coalition. But Labour's story was even worse as it had lost its audience within two years of going into Government and it reaped the bitter fruits of unwise and lavish promises in 2011.

It took four separate votes, and 70 days of on-off talks, for the current strange hybrid government to emerge. The reality is that only 58 TDs were interested in playing a full role in government.

Fianna Fáil turned down an offer from Enda Kenny of a "partnership government" including some Independents. The idea was that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would share the same number of Cabinet seats. They never got far enough in discussions to broach the prospect of "a rotating Taoiseach", something which Labour had mooted a quarter of a century ago in very different circumstances indeed.

Clearly, while there are signs of many other coalition permutations working out, the final political taboo remains a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil full share in government. Recent opinion polls indicate that Micheál Martin and his party have profited from the current strange arrangement.

But many in Fianna Fáil fear the next election might only reverse the current pecking order in a similar deal.

Irish Independent

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