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Instability beckons as one election could well lead to another... and maybe even a third

John Downing


 

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A re-run of the 1981/82 three elections in 18 months would be bad news amid Brexit, trade rows and other challenges

A re-run of the 1981/82 three elections in 18 months would be bad news amid Brexit, trade rows and other challenges

A re-run of the 1981/82 three elections in 18 months would be bad news amid Brexit, trade rows and other challenges

For almost 30 years we could rely on one stand-out political fact. It was that the least likely outcome of an election was another election following on soon afterwards.

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As we face into tomorrow's General Election, that assumption is far from certain. In fact, we could be heading back to a situation like 1981/82 when we had three elections inside 18 months. The people went to vote in June 1981, in February 1982, and again in November 1982, as the Irish economy teetered on the brink and many citizens were in deep despair.

Indeed the political lessons of the 1980s are well worth recalling because they have resonance for the here and now. It was an era dominated by the deep antagonism between Garret FitzGerald of Fine Gael and Charlie Haughey of Fianna Fáil.

Though this pair were of similar age and each attended UCD around the same time, they were in fact like chalk and cheese.

Haughey was a northside Dubliner, a GAA man, who went into business and got rich quickly by rather dubious means. FitzGerald was part of the new Catholic elite whose parents were involved in running the newly independent Irish Free State from the 1920s.

Haughey took over as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil in December 1979, and there were instantly virulent clashes with FitzGerald, who had taken over the Fine Gael leadership after a heavy election defeat in 1977. Their first election on June 11, 1981, was a very hard-fought affair.

Things were complicated by the hunger strikes in the North. In the end, Haughey lost narrowly and FitzGerald managed to pull together a coalition with Labour, supported by three Independent TDs. Economic stormclouds hit immediately and Haughey brushed aside any blame for previous economic mismanagement and attacked FitzGerald's harsh economic measures.

In July 1981, then finance minister John Bruton was obliged to introduce an emergency Budget. As the hunger strikers began to die there were violent street protests, especially in Dublin, with armed soldiers secretly based in the British Embassy in Ballsbridge ready to defend it.

To meet Labour demands for welfare increases, Bruton extended VAT to footwear and clothes and abolished food subsidies. Independent TDs voted against the Budget in late January 1982, teeing up an election for the following month.

In February 1982, Haughey managed to get elected by the skin of his teeth. He was reliant on four left-wing TDs - most notably Dubliner Tony Gregory, who secured promises of big inner-city investment.

But Haughey lasted a rollercoaster ride of nine months with huge internal Fianna Fáil dissent and some extraordinary happenings compounding all the economic misery.

When Haughey's economic hardman, Ray MacSharry, tried to enforce huge spending cuts, the Independent TDs walked.

It took the third election in 18 months, in November 1982, to deliver a decisive result. Fine Gael-Labour had an overall majority and governed until late 1986.

A re-run of the 1981/82 three elections in 18 months would be very bad news for Ireland in 2020 as it faces Brexit, international trade rows and other challenges.

The arithmetic of the new Dáil will be determined by last counts for the final seats in many of the 39 constituencies. So it is difficult to be precise.

Fianna Fáil at a stretch could pull together a shaky rainbow coalition. Or, we may need a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael grand coalition. Or one of the two would have to break the Sinn Féin taboo.

So, instability beckons.

Irish Independent