Tuesday 22 October 2019

Grab the chance of power now while you can, Micheál

An open letter to Micheál Martin, leader of the Opposition

Cartoonist: Ken Lee
Cartoonist: Ken Lee
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Dear Micheál, Happy St Paddy's Day to you and Mary. Congratulations on the election performance and result. In an unguarded moment over a year ago, you told me for Fianna Fáil to win 40 seats would be a "phenomenal" result; 44 TDs surpassed insiders' optimistic estimates. Victories in both Kildares, Cavan/Monaghan, Sligo/Leitrim, Mayo, Cork North-West, Dublin Bay South and Donegal were exceptional achievements.

Your personal performance in Cork South-Central passed unnoticed. I sussed during Leeside visits that Michael McGrath would be ahead of you on the first count (compared to your lead of 3,500 in 2011). For you both to exceed the quota on the first count was remarkable - the redraw in Bishopstown affected you the worst.

Your grasp of policy and detail in the leaders' debates was in stark contrast to Enda and Gerry; your calm demeanour and debating skills on TV gained FF votes.

Some extra seats could've been won with vote management and extra candidates. You can win an additional dozen seats next time, including Dublin South-Central (Catherine Ardagh), Galway West, Clare, Limerick City and County, Wexford, Cork North-Central, Offaly, Longford/Westmeath, Louth, Dun Laoghaire, and Dublin Rathdown. The problem is, I struggle to see you get beyond 60 seats in the 33rd Dáil, even with almost 30pc of the vote.

I understand your current strategy: not to go into coalition with Fine Gael under any circumstances; remain in Opposition, alongside Sinn Féin; prevent the collapse of a FG minority government by a written deal of Budget/confidence motion for a finite period, while amending individual decisions by defeating them intermittently in Dáil votes.

This honours pre-election promises to not go into government with FG or SF, yet provides the country with 'political stability'.

This strategy prevents Sinn Féin being the principal opposition party and growing to the point of leading a future government beyond 2020.

The reason for my letter is to query whether you've thought through this strategy into the medium term?

Let's roll the dice forward to 2017/18 after your 'Tallaght strategy' expires.

Let's assume benignly that FG doesn't anticipate you pulling the rug when it suits, then bolting to the country at a time of maximum frustration with being beholden to you. You may not control a lame-duck administration into submission. Voters, apathetic about politics, may become exasperated by parliamentary machinations. Few punters care about the finer workings of the Oireachtas.

In any event, you may bring down a stuttering FG shambles eventually and we will return to the polls before the expiry of a full five-year term. By then, Sinn Féin will have a new leader, probably female and from Dublin - Mary Lou McDonald; it'll have ditched legacy Republicans like Gerry Adams, Martin Ferris and Dessie Ellis; it'll win extra seats with better candidates across Dublin, Galway West, Tipperary and Wexford. SF is more strident, anti-establishment and left-wing than centrist FF.

You're going to be faced with an identical dilemma to today's. You cannot become Taoiseach without coalescing either with FG or SF. Even if you win 60 seats, you'll have the same problem that faced FG/Labour from the start of this campaign - you'd be 20 seats short of a working majority. Handfuls of Independents can't bridge the gap to compose a viable durable government.

This is an optimistic scenario for you; perhaps some FF supporters (57pc in Sunday's Red C poll) want a stable grand coalition to confront a myriad of economic and social problems currently facing us all. They may blame you for putting party before country, playing charades instead of forming a government.

Remember those 500,000 former FF voters loaned to FG in 2011, who returned to FF in 2016? By definition, their oscillation between FF and FG means they can tolerate both parties working together. FF TDs, members and voters are split on crossing this Rubicon.

The present predicament is similar to that faced by Charlie Haughey in 1987 and 1989. His repeatedly avowed credo was total opposition to FF coalescing with anyone. After two years of minority government, temporarily propped up by Alan Dukes's FG, he still didn't get a majority in 1989. Dáil arithmetic eventually obliged him into coalition with his bête noire, Dessie O'Malley and the PDs.

The difference now is both FF and FG top brass haven't absorbed the new realities of Irish politics. The combined market share of both Civil War factions is steadily diminishing. It's been in incremental decline for 50 years.

This irreversible trend of a reduced collective total is easily explained. Go talk to grandparents about party allegiances, they'll speak of De Valera and Collins; their children are tepid to diehard traditions; but their grandchildren are urbanised floating voters with cynical disdain for the old-establishment ethos.

You're likely to gain the upper hand over FG sooner or later. Then what? At some point, you'll have to repudiate SF in government or go into government with it. You can't control both government and opposition benches indefinitely.

Labour isn't going to replace SF, AAA/PBP and independent socialists any time soon. FG under a new leader won't gift you with "whingers" windfalls.

Good luck with your proposed 'Zimmer frame' government. Keeping FG in a life-support government gives you zero power, but ultimate responsibility; culpable of propping it up. In the next election, you'll be faced even more squarely by questions easily evaded last time: "Will you rule out serving as Taoiseach in an FF/FG government?" At that stage, voters will be thoroughly fed up with prospects of a third election, and still no government in sight.

Your current strategy is primarily predicated on controlling the growth of SF. It may or may not work. It's a short-term response to a long-term problem.

Meanwhile, genuine FF supporters struggle to run businesses, pay taxes, rear families; getting on with being responsible citizens. They're supposed to be content with tactical manoeuvres, rather than FF ministers running the country.

You've an opportunity right now, as rotating Taoiseach, to lead the country. It's a pity you won't grab the chance of power. History is on the side of significant political change.

Denying this inevitability seems like short-sighted indecision.

Best wishes, Ivan.

Irish Independent

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