Wednesday 22 May 2019

FG and FF have been in decline for decades so collaboration is a must

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin Photo: Sam Boal/
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin Photo: Sam Boal/

Theresa Reidy

Even before the last of the election results were declared, it was clear that any new government was going to require engagement and co-operation between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Between them, the two parties won 94 seats. Sinn Féin and some of the hard-left TDs have removed themselves from government formation entirely. The only workable arrangement is a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agreement.

For a month, there has been discussion of the options on what might be called a spectrum of cooperation.

Engagement and co-operation

The first of these options is a coalition of the two parties where they would agree a programme for government, share out ministerial portfolios across the parties and perhaps a small number of independents, and potentially split the time in the office of Taoiseach equally across the two party leaders. This was being promoted by Fine Gael on Thursday as a partnership government.

This proposal would have been a new departure in Irish politics, bringing together the two parties which have provided the cornerstone of electoral competition in the State since 1927. But it was always unlikely. Fianna Fáil have consistently said that they will not join a coalition government, so their decision to reject the proposal was entirely to be expected. But, equally, their pronouncement that it was a complete surprise that this was going to be offered was faintly ridiculous as it has been discussed extensively for a month.

This leaves two further options on the co-operation spectrum. A middle road of collaboration would involve the parties agreeing policies in a limited number of areas. Priorities in health, education and housing might be on the list. The two parties could also agree certain budgetary provisions. An increase in the old-age pension is an obvious one where the parties could easily agree. One of the parties, probably Fianna Fáil, would go into opposition but would have considerable influence on policy and the opportunity to extract concessions from Fine Gael for as long as the government lasted.

It would be a delicate balancing act as one of the parties would be in opposition and could potentially get large amounts of criticism without the advantage of power, but it does have the advantage, which Fianna Fáil is particularly attuned to, of diluting the unity of the opposition. Keeping one large right-wing party in opposition would prevent the opposition from providing an ideologically coherent left-wing critique of government.

As the week came to a close, this option was also starting to look unlikely, and relations between the parties, at least in public, seem to have deteriorated.

Tallaght Two

The last workable arrangement would be a minimalist agreement where Fianna Fáil agrees to abstain in budget votes and votes of confidence for a period of time in return for certain policy concessions.

This is unusual territory in Irish politics but not unique. Between 1987 and 1989, Fine Gael supported a minority Fianna Fáil government from opposition on its budgetary strategy. The arrangement was known as the Tallaght Strategy.

Tallaght Take Two now looks like it is the only show in town but if this week's ill-tempered exchanges are anything to go by, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil may come to be known instead as The Tallaght Two, political prisoners in an electoral impasse that won't go away and might only be broken by another election.

The future of electoral politics

Holding another election continues to be put forward as the nuclear option and the main reason why the parties will be forced into some kind of co-operation. It is indeed a disincentive. Elections are expensive, party resources are depleted and Independents would be especially challenged if a second election was to take place this year. But what also needs to be discussed is whether a new election would deliver a different result.

The outcome of the 2016 election has created a different government formation environment to anything in the past.

Neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael is large enough to be able to reach a majority or even a working minority through partnership with other groups in the system.

What is important to note, though, is that decline of the two main parties has been in train since the late 1970s. The combined share of their vote has dropped from over 80pc to under 50pc in the intervening period. 2011 might have been the aberrant election when the crisis delivered a sharp increase in support for Fine Gael and Labour due to extraordinary circumstances.

2016 could be a continuation of the pattern of large party decline which political scientists have been talking about for many years.

There is a trend in many other countries of the large catch-all parties which have dominated government for decades no longer being able to command the majorities they once did.

The last few weeks have given us a great deal of discussion of the merits and problems of minority governments, with lots of examples from Denmark and the Netherlands, but this is not the only outcome of this trend. Germany has opted for grand coalition, an agreement between the two large parties which were long time competitors.

The new normal

It looks increasingly clear that Irish politics is taking on the appearance of patterns of party competition and collaboration that are long established in other European countries.

Whatever road is taken, collaboration or a new election, it is likely that new combinations of parties in government will be here to stay.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at University College Cork.

Irish Independent

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