Sunday 25 August 2019

Labour transfer pact leaves huge challenges

Tanaiste Joan Burton
Tanaiste Joan Burton
John Downing

John Downing

Labour can hang in with Fine Gael - or else they can just go hang. That is a crude but accurate summation of the options for the junior Coalition partner as the general election draws nearer. Labour's only hope for transfers is to make public common cause with the party with which they will have served a full five-year government term come the upcoming general election.

That election will now be next spring - quite likely called next February and held in early March. The recurring controversies surrounding Irish Water, and the persistent friction still prevailing from the Fennelly report, have banished any residual speculation of a pre-Christmas dash to the polls by Enda Kenny.

Anyone with a glancing knowledge of politics knows that Labour are blocked by Sinn Féin on their left flank. Labour backroom strategists have also long ago discounted hopes of the traditional reliance on votes from a plethora of leftist, protest and alternative candidates. Labour, as an establishment party of government since March 2011, does not expect sympathy from those quarters.

The Labour Party's association with the draconian policies, shaped with the EU-IMF-ECB Troika looking over their shoulders, and largely framed and front-loaded by their predecessors, was in sharp contrast with rash and unrealistic promises delivered in the February 2011 general election campaign. The public's version of the statute of limitations on broken political promises is longer than the four-year period which obtains in many legal issues.

This writer is among a minority who believes Labour have a good story to tell, about how they kept their nerve in dishing out the tough medicine, which in turn yielded to a jobs-friendly economic recovery. The persistent problem for their courageous leader, Joan Burton, is that a major slice of their traditional supporters are not minded to listen to them.

News of the pact, as we have noted, makes perfect sense and there is no other option. But it has also been well flagged. Ahead of the Labour Party conference in Killarney last February, Ms Burton heavily hinted that some form of voting pact would be worked out. The parties would stand separately, with separate election manifestos - but would make clear that they were offering a return of the current Government.

"We will be acknowledging the work that we have done together, that we have been able to reach common platforms in the interests of the Irish people," she said on the eve of the Killarney conference.

The last time Labour and Fine Gael sought re-election on a common programme was in June 1997 when the Rainbow Coalition was only narrowly defeated. At that stage, the common platform included not only John Bruton's Fine Gael and Dick Spring's Labour, but the most unlikely ally in the form of Proinsias De Rossa and the Democratic Left. It is not often appreciated how narrowly Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fáil managed to best the Rainbow and put together their own wonky-looking, but ultimately durable "three-legged-stool coalition".

Labour, on 6pc, are staring into the abyss. Their election strategy will be one of damage limitation. In the 1997 general election, it was the drubbing voters gave Labour - reducing them from 33 TDs in 1992 to just 17, which upended the Rainbow.

Some in Fine Gael may not want to dwell over-long on that recollection. But the main challenges for now rest with Labour.

Ms Burton knows that voters will view any Labour election programme as not hugely relevant. They will know that the political reality will be what Labour could get in coalition government programme negotiations with Fine Gael, an outcome which would in turn depend on how many TDs they return. Even a half-decent and liveable election result would still pose internal problems for the party. A special conference would have to be called for Labour to approve resuming any coalition arrangement with Fine Gael.

A similar conference in March 2011 gave Eamon Gilmore's Labour a ringing endorsement for coalition. It may not be so easy next time. We could expect strong voices urging a go-it-alone approach, making common cause with other leftist voices, and probably rebuilding in part by recruiting some independent TDs.

The more immediate challenge for Joan Burton will be about quelling some backbench unrest about the prospect of the transfer pact. But she must also wrack up some public wins for the party in next month's Budget.

Relations between the two Coalition parties are not good. Any signal that Fine Gael is being less than 100pc supportive of the Labour nominee as Attorney General, Máire Whelan, in the current fall-out from the Fennelly report, would be explosive.

The ongoing human calamity that is the migrant crisis has taken some media attention from the Fennelly report. It is likely that the Taoiseach can move on from it - but it is equally clear that he cannot emerge without some political damage.

As the parties prepare for their pre-Dáil think-ins ahead of a return to Leinster House, all TDs and Senators will frame everything in terms of the upcoming election. Voter transfer pacts or not - it remains an intriguing and unpredictable prospect.

Everyone wants to avoid political accidents - and that of itself can cause accidents.

Irish Independent

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