Friday 20 July 2018

FF to dodge FG coalition bullet with 'supply and confidence' trick

A decade of instability, minority governments and repeated elections has dawned - and that's a good thing, says Jody Corcoran

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The non co-operative game theory at play between Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin this summer took a decisive turn with the forced announcement by the Fine Gael leader that he will step down some time in his second term should he be re-elected Taoiseach.

The speculation is that Mr Kenny will resign 18 months after the forthcoming election to contest the then Presidential Election, a development, in my view, which could precipitate another of possibly several more general elections over the next decade or so.

We are about to enter - if we are not already in - a period of what is generally referred to as "political instability"; but that is not necessarily something to be concerned about - in my view, rather, when properly approached, it is a development to be embraced.

It could be that the political consequences of the economic collapse and subsequent implementation of austerity measures will be far more positive and radical than previously envisaged.

The upshot may lead to what has been called "far more dynamic models of government formation" here within the broader context of party competition as a whole.

This possibility was first suggested in 1998 in a review by Michael Laver, professor of political science at Trinity College Dublin, in a paper on the making and breaking of governments in minority legislatures in which no political party controls a majority of seats.

Current opinion polls suggest the forthcoming election will provide precisely such an outcome. The four main blocs, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the less cohesive Independents are fighting each other to a standstill. According to the polls, only a combined Fine Gael and Fianna Fail can form a majority government.

This summer has seen a renewed outbreak of intra-party politics in both parties, as the possibility of a grand coalition comes into sharper focus. The divergent positions on the issue within both parties are, in fact, as welcome as they are inevitable.

As somebody who first predicted a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition based on opinion polls three years ago, I think the time has come to nuance that analysis as the election nears.

At this remove from polling day, I now believe the most likely outcome will be a Fine Gael minority government supported by Fianna Fail in a slightly more formal arrangement - short of formal coalition - known as a "supply and confidence" agreement.

Basically, it will work like this: Fianna Fail commit to support Fine Gael on crucial votes in return for concessions on some elements of its manifesto.

So Fianna Fail will not vote against a Budget (supply) or against Fine Gael in a "no confidence" vote (confidence).

A form of the concept has been suggested by Shane Ross of the Independent Alliance; other benefits have been espoused by Renua Ireland, although neither is currently showing to be in a position to participate in such a new model of government here.

Though occasionally inconvenient, a supply and confidence arrangement will enable Fine Gael to pass much of its agenda and fill all ministerial posts itself without having to make too many concessions.

For its part, Fianna Fail will win support for some of its favoured policies, in the process diluting what Micheal Martin has referred to as the "too right wing" policies of Fine Gael, while avoiding the possible political taint that may come from participation in an unpopular coalition.

Such an arrangement was put in place in New Zealand last year between ACT New Zealand, which agreed to provide confidence and supply for the term of the Parliament to a National-led Government in return for National's agreement to a policy programme and other matters set out in a formal document.

The government agreed to consult with ACT, including on the broad outline of the legislative programme, key legislative measures, major policy issues, broad budget parameters; and policy issues and legislative measures to which ACT was likely to be particularly sensitive.

Other co-operation included access to relevant ministers, regular meetings between the equivalents of Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin, advance notification to the other party of significant announcements by either the government or ACT, and briefings by ministers and officials on significant issues and issues that were likely to be politically sensitive before any public announcement.

Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fail will publicly commit to such or a somewhat lesser arrangement at this stage for understandable reasons - specifically because both want to maximise support before the election.

But I am given to understand that there is an influential body of opinion within Fianna Fail which would seriously consider such an arrangement over a more formal coalition speculated upon by leading younger figures in both parties.

Whether a supply and confidence agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail would last the lifetime of full parliament is a moot point, however.

In proper practice it should, but in my view it would not at first or even second attempt, an outcome which would not unduly concern either Micheal Martin or Enda Kenny, who would secure his place in history as the first successive two-term Fine Gael Taoiseach, by then possibly on his way to the Aras.

Fianna Fail, meanwhile, would be in a better position to protect its flank against Sinn Fein and in better shape to contest and perhaps even win an election in a mere two years when a new Fine Gael leader may, shall we say, be obliged to seek his or her own mandate.

Such realpolitik would go against the true spirit of that more dynamic model of government formation as predicted by Michael Laver almost two decades ago.

But there is some evidence to suggest that such an era is upon us, even if it takes a little time to bed down.

One of the great benefits, as referred to by Laver, is that such a new model would challenge the motivational assumptions about politicians - that they are office-seeking rather that policy-seeking.

Another benefit is that such a new model would open up real debate on policy within political parties here and take fundamental account of intra-party politics.

Such benefits, and others, have been the life-source of new political movements and parties here, such as the Independent Alliance and Renua, for example. Could it be that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will now steal the clothes of this new politics for their own mutual benefit? Stranger things have happened.

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