Tuesday 28 January 2020

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will soon learn there is no escape from political evolution


Ivan Yates

And so the cycle of futility goes on: Another Dáil sitting; another abortive attempt at government formation; another adjournment - all with no end game in sight.

Public patience with such puerile politics was exhausted weeks ago. All this achieves is more terminal damage to the already deeply devalued credibility of our own parliament, so sadly devoid of statesmen and women. Common sense alone dictates that party leaders Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin must rapidly begin the real process of constructing a 'Grand Coalition'. All those lectures about 1916-based patriotism sound hollow when petty party games take precedence over the national interest. We need a full-term, stable government with a working Oireachtas majority in both houses.

Those seeking to make comparisons with the mess we are in today with the hat-trick of general elections in the 1981/2 period are wide of the mark.

Today's mathematics are completely different. Back in the 1980s FF and FG held a stake which exceeded 75pc (almost 80pc) of the electoral market. This meant either Charlie Haughey or Garret FitzGerald (with Labour) were each within touching distance of majority rule. Only a handful of TDs were required to put either block into office. And so it came to pass that Jim Kemmy, Sean 'Dublin Bay' Loftus and Tony Gregory were able to hold the balance of power. Today, even a unified bloc of 15 TDs are unable to deliver either of the two leaders any form of sustainable administration. In the early 1980s, a further election held out the tantalising but tangible prospect of a victory for a Taoiseach. Now, a repeat election is certain to leave both FF and FG almost 30 seats short of ruling the country alone. Their combined vote share is unlikely to exceed much more than 50pc. These new realities seem to escape the brain trusts within either frontbench. A second election might at best tilt FF towards being the largest party, but will not elevate it to a place where it could govern without both FG and Sinn Féin.

Numerous opinion polls confirm three out of four voters would still vote the same way as they did on February 26. All of this begs the question: How exactly can the current stalemate be broken? Here are three game-changing scenarios.

1. President Michael D Higgins should communicate to the party leaders his conviction and determination to exercise his absolute power to refuse a Dáil dissolution where a Taoiseach has no majority. Apparently, in November 1994, Mary Robinson informed acting Taoiseach Albert Reynolds of her likely intention to opt for this discretionary authority, which led to a change of coalition without an election. Labour simply crossed the floor towards a rainbow government. President Higgins can address the chamber or convene leaders' meetings to declare his requirement for two budgets to elapse prior to consent for dissolution. This demarche could torpedo FF attempts to contrive a second election. This would oblige powerbrokers to accept the voters' will. It has 80pc support.

2. Enda Kenny should accept the hard facts of political life and step down as FG leader. He seems to be in denial about the election results. He's lost his coalition partner. He's lost 26 FG seats. He's lost majority support amongst his parliamentary party (once 14 new senators assemble in May), party membership and the general public. The reasons behind his attempts to cling to power are all rooted in opportunism. The advantage of keeping him in place for FG TDs is that he has the power to anoint them as ministers, even if it's a doomed, short-term posting.

FF would love to see FG contest the next campaign with his head on the posters, maximising FF electoral gains. When your opponents are your key allies, it's time to consider your party's interests ahead of your own.

3. All left-wing TDs - in the widest sense - should combine to form a sufficient Dáil grouping to prop up a minority government based on agreed agendas.

Sinn Fein's 23 TDs, Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit's 6 TDs, Labour's 7 TDs, plus Independent socialists (Mick Wallace, Clare Daly) together comprise a block of almost 40 TDs.

These have one common denominator right now - they've all conveniently opted out of participating as a coalition government partner. Standing alone they are political eunochs, happy to grandstand, abandoning any responsibility to govern. Yet, they could combine to have as much potency as FF, in preparing a joint platform. They too could be powerbrokers; implementing promises without ministerial odium.

Or we could continue to arse around until June without a proper administration. All visible manifestations of normal governance may appear operational. Reputational damage at EU Council meetings, weakness in investor sentiment towards Ireland Inc and the cost of government bonds are only containable for a fixed period. After that, real harm could be done. Caretaker Cabinet meetings can't frame fresh policies; all legislative action is suspended; key appointments are put on hold.

Departmental budgetary control cannot be left on autopilot.

Back in the real world, public service personnel are looking at a transforming industrial landscape. Siptu (especially president Jack O'Connor) is upping the ante on pay.

Over recent years the union has been battered by Unite, Mandate and TEEU within and outside Ictu for being slavish supporters of Labour in government - sustaining votes on the Haddington/Lansdowne Road deals and underwriting Irish Water.

Look at what we have seen already with the Luas strike. Further impending battles loom with teachers' unions ASTI/TUI and the Garda Representatives' Association. Common pay scales for recent new entrants seems inevitable. But no one is minding the shop.

Kenny's FG may believe it is in the driving seat by retaining the trappings of power and having a seven-seat size advantage. But this is merely an illusion. FF holds the vital levers of power. It's the party's refusal to opt for a coalition of equals and a rotating Taoiseach that primarily prevents the formation of a new government. FF wants another election, provided it doesn't get blamed for causing it. It's classic - even vintage - cute hoor politics. I firmly believe that by 2020, FF and FG will be government partners. There's no long-term escape strategy from political evolution. Trends point to their collective decline in a modern Ireland. The taxpayers, victims of homelessness and public patients are mere collateral damage as Enda and Micheál play their costly parlour games.

Irish Independent

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