Monday 20 May 2019

Public's impatience will propel FG and FF into an alliance

Cartoonist: Scratch
Cartoonist: Scratch

Liz O’Donnell

Two weeks post-election and all we have are vague mutterings about the formation of a possible government comprising the two big parties down the road.

However, the election of a Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot is a refreshing change from the traditional sinecure and may strengthen both the office itself and the primacy of the Dáil in holding the government of the day to account. For the public, the Ceann Comhairle is that embattled, red-faced figure on the TV news trying to control unruly deputies in the chamber. But the role is much wider than that.

The Ceann Comhairle and his office essentially manage the business of the Dáil, legislation and motions and adjudicates on the admissibility of parliamentary questions. He does so under the Standing Orders of the House and his office at times mediates with government departments on the affairs of the Dáil.

Above all, he - and it is a 'he' as Maureen O'Sullivan's bid to get elected came to naught - is the guardian of the House and protector of the rights of elected members. As such, independence from Government is essential.

Maureen's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to become the first female Ceann Comhairle set me thinking about the importance of women's voices being heard in the Dáil and in public life.

This week, many events marked Global International Women's Day. The idea of celebrating women's achievements in society and advocacy for greater gender parity is not new. Despite real progress for women's rights in Ireland over the last 30 years, due to EU equality directives and greater access to education and opportunities for women across all employment sectors, there remain areas of gender imbalance, particularly when it comes to women on boards and senior management. The percentage of women on corporate boards is still only 12pc.

But since the foundation of the State, politics has been a cold place for women. Only 15 women have ever been appointed to Cabinet and for years Ireland has languished at the bottom of the EU league for women in parliament, at under 15pc. Election 2016, thanks mainly to the quota, delivered 35 women TDs, an extra 19 women, or 22pc.

Already, I detect a noticeable difference in political discourse. For example, when women TDs across all parties and none have been asked for their analysis of the current stalemate over government formation, to a woman they have been more flexible and innovative in their responses. In contrast, their male colleagues, particularly in the two big parties, have invariably been stuck in fixed positions, displaying intransigence and a marked inability to contemplate the novel concept of sharing power with each other.

Eamon O Cuiv incredibly pleaded that the majority would be too big in such an arrangement and appears trenchantly opposed. He is not alone and Micheál Martin will have a ferocious job to get agreement with colleagues to share power with Fine Gael.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil is courting favour with independents and smaller parties with a newfound interest in Dáil reform, which is so transparently a distraction as to be laughable. Some Fine Gael luminaries too, although softening around the edges, are clearly repulsed by the notion of working with the old enemy. Although all roads lead towards the inevitable grand coalition, which would provide stability and experience to steer Ireland through the next five years, the playacting continues.

The dangers of an alternative, comprising a spectrum of independent deputies headed up by Shane Ross, were exposed when the TD and business journalist referred to Taoiseach Enda Kenny in a Sunday newspaper as being "like a political corpse" after what was supposed to be a confidential meeting. No government could operate effectively with that type of behaviour relating to government business. In a way, the incident, which was widely criticised and for which there was no apology, was a salutary lesson.

The new Ceann Comhairle, Seán Ó Fearghaíl of Fianna Fáil, will have a tough job to control an unruly chamber. So many new deputies will have high expectations of what they personally can achieve to prove their mandate. The growth of anti- austerity and hard-left deputies and an increased cohort of Sinn Féin TDs will make for plenty of noise and high dudgeon. But, as economist Colm McCarthy memorably said, "anger is not a policy" and after a while people tire of it.

Labour, while nursing its wounds, has great experience and will be savvy at carving out the party's recovery, even on the crowded opposition benches. Liberated from the responsibility of office, it can articulate a progressive agenda which will resonate again with traditional left voters who migrated elsewhere. Sinn Féin is back in greater numbers and will in the event of a grand coalition be the biggest opposition party; a prospect which is spooking the big parties and which may in the end scupper any coalition being acceptable.

My own instinct is that the weight and impatience of public opinion may propel the two big parties to agree a programme for government albeit with gritted teeth. Of the two partners, FF is the least enamoured by such an alliance.

Its populist, irresponsible stance on Irish Water too is a big obstacle to agreement, but one which must be ditched if it is to be credible as a party of government.

The most frequently expressed reservation by senior FG and FF deputies to a coalition is that there are real and material differences in the parties' approaches and policies. This, of course, does not stand up to any scrutiny. The main difficulty is one of mutual distrust and cultural and historical enmity.

But, more than anything, it looks like an inability to embrace change and challenge. Saying something is "very difficult" is not very convincing to citizens impatient for action on serious problems requiring good governance and continued social recovery.

The Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil were very different in culture, history and ideology. Yet on the basis of an agreed programme for government, successful coalitions were made and functioned for over a decade. Relations were civil despite occasional policy disagreements and that is how such governments work. Programme managers from the respective parties anticipate disagreements and avoid disputes. The programme of work is the agenda, not the hubris of ministers or party preservation.

It's called the national interest.

Irish Independent

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