Tuesday 22 October 2019

This hybrid Government may yet defy the odds

Bertie Ahern, who put together a coalition that lasted a full term from 1997-2002 Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Bertie Ahern, who put together a coalition that lasted a full term from 1997-2002 Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
John Downing

John Downing

Eleven weeks on from the General Election, we finally got this strange hybrid of a minority Government, led by a battered Fine Gael, involving some reluctant Independents and by kind permission of Fianna Fáil.

So where do we go from here? Well, the short answer is not very far and definitely not very fast. The new Cabinet will spend this week trying to read themselves into a host of complex issues, problems and even crises.

Public expectations for the longevity and effectiveness for this never-before-seen form of government are rather low. That may be a good thing.

But with government, as with so much else, first impressions really count. Ministers are entitled to draw breath this week - but that is the extent of it. What is achieved in the mythical first 100 days will make or break this new line-up.

We note that we have nothing remotely resembling a comparison from our past. But let's take a very quick glance at four experiences of minority coalitions from the last generation.

1. June 1981 to February 1982: Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald set up a coalition with Labour, relying upon the support of three Independent TDs. Forced to introduce a supplementary budget the following month, the coalition grappled unsuccessfully with the economic crisis. FitzGerald tried hard to make progress on the North's problems and launched a 'Constitutional Crusade' in September 1981. But on January 27, 1982, the government fell over a budget provision levying VAT on children's shoes.

2. February 1982 to November 1982: Fianna Fáil leader Charlie Haughey put together a government with the support of three Workers' Party deputies and Independent TDs Tony Gregory and Neil Blaney. Tony Gregory got a IR£150m inner-city Dublin investment deal in return for his vote. But the economic crisis forced huge government cuts and drove the government out of office, sparking a third general election in 18 months.

3. 1987-1989: Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fáil was three seats short of an overall majority after the February 1987 general election. He governed with qualified support from Fine Gael, led by Alan Dukes, under the so-called 'Tallaght Strategy'. The government made good strides in getting the economy back on track. It could have continued beyond May 1989 when Haughey, wrongly believing he could win an overall majority, called a snap general election.

4. 1997-2002: In June 1997, Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern put together "a three-legged stool" coalition with four Progressive Democrat TDs and four Independent TDs. Opposition TDs and commentators predicted it could only last months. But buoyed by an economic boom, it went full term until May 2002 and Ahern went on to be re-elected Taoiseach on two subsequent occasions.

So it has been a mixed bag, with two failures, one reasonable success and one unqualified success. It has also involved some political learning as time went along and also some changes to public expectations of politics.

This writer has already predicted that the new Government is unlikely to last more than 15 months. But equally, I will be very happy to be proved wrong.

This is because I have also argued, especially since the general election outcome on February 27, that we need stable government and we could benefit quite a lot from far more consensus in our Dáil and Seanad politics. I will be very happy to see this minority Coalition run at least until late 2018 and maybe even beyond that point.

The last example - Bertie Ahern's three-legged stool - offers the most cause for optimism. The reality is that this was a good government in its time, especially in its first half-term. It withstood the loss of Bertie Ahern's number two minister, Ray Burke, amid huge controversy after just three months in office.

But it went on to deliver the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and rode a period of extraordinary economic boom. There are undoubtedly some parallels and lessons to be learned from that 1997-2002 experience, if a strong dose of fiscal prudence is factored in.

Equally, there was as much evidence of negativity on view in the new Dáil last week. Contributions from many in Sinn Féin, Richard Boyd Barrett of AAA-PBP, and a particularly bitter and personalised contribution from Independent and former Labour TD Tommy Broughan, laid great emphasis on a questionable mandate given to this Government.

Well, all of these people should take a crash course in the political realities, which mean that this strange Government does in fact have a mandate - or the nearest thing any group has to a mandate to govern. The funny Dáil arithmetic not withstanding, the coalition leaders, Fine Gael, are still the largest party and there is a strong involvement by Independents at a time when voters have returned the largest number of Independent TDs since the State was founded.

The new Government begins knowing that it must build consensus in taking key decisions. But the latter stages of Friday's Dáil exchanges carry a simple lesson. It is that building a level of Dáil consensus is possible - but building complete consensus is not.

For those of us who love our politics, this new Government does not lack talking points.

The new Transport Minister, Shane Ross, who never missed an opportunity to wallop the unions and be right about everything that is wrong, has been handed an ongoing Luas strike and incipient disputes at Irish Rail and Dublin Bus. Some gnarled Leinster House veterans will take undue pleasure in watching that one.

Equally, while Finian McGrath is a popular choice as junior minister responsible for disability, his transition from campaigner to a maker of tough decisions with limited resources will be watched with interest.

There are so many inbuilt disadvantages facing this creaky bicycle of a Government that their only hope is to drive on at speed.

Irish Independent

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