Thursday 22 August 2019

John Downing: 'Coalitions here to stay as 30 years of power sharing show us that no alliances are totally 'unthinkable''

'Thirty years ago next Saturday, on June 15, 1989, the voters delivered a judgment against Mr Haughey and Fianna Fáil'
'Thirty years ago next Saturday, on June 15, 1989, the voters delivered a judgment against Mr Haughey and Fianna Fáil'
John Downing

John Downing

Charlie Haughey had gambled heavily and lost badly. Not for the first or last time, it had longer-term implications for the rest of the Irish nation, heralding a fundamental change in the way we do politics.

Thirty years ago next Saturday, on June 15, 1989, the voters delivered a judgment against Mr Haughey and Fianna Fáil. Irish voters had been slowly moving away from the UK model of one-party government towards the coalition model on mainland Europe - but this election delivered a decisive and irrevocable step in that direction.

The past three decades of many coalition hues has brought us some good things and some rather bad things. So, this 30th anniversary offers some food for thought - not least about the future of how we order our affairs.

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By June 1989, the then-Taoiseach had governed without Dáil majority for over two years thanks to favour from Fine Gael and leader Alan Dukes's pragmatic so-called 'Tallaght Strategy', which supported corrective economic action.

On April 26, 1989, Mr Haughey returned from a trade visit to Japan to find his minority government was set to lose another private members' vote. This one, being from Labour about compensation for haemophiliacs stricken by contaminated blood, would be embarrassing but never fatal for the government.

But a jet-lagged and petulant Taoiseach announced that if the government was defeated he would go for an early election. He was egged on by his lieutenants, Pádraig Flynn and Ray Burke. The majority of his ministers, including future successors Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, were vehemently opposed to an election.

These days the Government is regularly defeated on private members' motions - and absolutely nothing, not even embarrassment, results. Even then, observers noted that Mr Haughey was taken by a lead for his party in the opinion polls. Revelations also later showed that Messrs Haughey, Flynn and Burke raised considerable funds in the run-in to that June 1989 campaign.

The campaign was yet again dogged by problems with the health services. Outgoing health minister Dr Rory O'Hanlon said waiting lists were not a reliable measure of hospital services and party colleague Dr John O'Connell dismissed complaints about people on trolleys, arguing trolleys were "beds with wheels".

Once the weekend counting was over it was clear Fianna Fáil had lost four TDs, bringing it down to 77 seats - a figure it can only dream about these days. Fine Gael, it is often forgotten, gained five seats, signalling some satisfaction with Mr Dukes's Tallaght Strategy, and Labour gained three seats.

The fledgling Progressive Democrats, in their second Dáil election, had a terrible result, dropping from 14 to six TDs. This Fianna Fáil breakaway-party was set up in late 1985, led by Mr Haughey's opponents like Des O'Malley, Bobby Molloy and Mary Harney. The split was the focus of much bitterness.

Mr Haughey announced he would form another minority administration. Mr Dukes quickly told him external support was no longer possible, and the coalition price would be seven of the 15 ministries and a rotating Taoiseach.

Talks then moved to external support from the breakaway Progressive Democrats. Their leader, Mr O'Malley, promptly said it was cabinet seats or nothing.

The Dáil met twice and delivered the hitherto unheard of result in the State's history of no Taoiseach being elected. On July 12, 1989, Mr Haughey met Mr O'Malley and agreed to two senior ministers, one junior, and three of the Taoiseach's 11 Seanad nominees. Mr Haughey's negotiators, Mr Reynolds and Mr Ahern, learned of these landmark concessions on the radio news.

Fianna Fáil had crossed the Rubicon and broken a core value of never, ever sharing power and cabinet seats. Up to June 1989, coalition governments were for "Anybody but Fianna Fáil" - henceforth they were for everybody.

Ever since then we have had coalitions as follows: Fianna Fáil-Labour (1992-1994); a Fine Gael-led rainbow government of three parties (1994-1997); Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats with external Independents' support (1997-2002); Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats (2002-2007); Fianna Fáil-Green Party (2007-2011); Fine Gael-Labour (2011-2016); Fine Gael-Independents, supported by Fianna Fáil confidence and supply, from May 2016 until the present.

A stand-back look at that coalition list is an education in itself. It reminds us how Mr Haughey's immediate successor, Mr Reynolds, a man of very fine qualities, was a slow learner when it came to sharing power, first with the Progressive Democrats and later with Labour.

The undoubted "coalition king" was Bertie Ahern. But his success must be offset by his habit of reaching for the cheque book to buy off objectors at the first sign of trouble.

We learned to our cost that money of itself is not always a remedy. Worse again, we learned that abandoning prudent management brought huge problems.

We are again reminded how Dáil numbers can instantly cancel the notion that some alliances are totally "unthinkable".

After O'Malley-Haughey, and Fianna Fáil-Labour, came the Democratic Left sharing cabinet with Fine Gael, an idea previously totally ruled out by John Bruton - until it gave him a surprise landing in the Taoiseach's office.

The clear lesson is that most - if not all - alliances are possible. Of the current political groupings and Independents at Leinster House, only Sinn Féin and the far-left Solidarity-People Before Profit have not had a share in government.

Signals from Sinn Féin suggest a definite change of intent on that subject for the future.

The far-leftist groups are determined that their job is about protest and campaigning - never responsibility for tough decisions based on scarce resources. It's hard to see that howl-at-the-moon view changing soon, but then again the same could have been said about the lists cited above.

One clear benefit of this sharing of power is that time-wasting political cant has been seriously dialled down. Withering Opposition comments are often quelled with a curt Government reminder that you guys were recently in power and similarly struggled.

That is certainly a boon in itself and there is no logical reason why cabinet seats cannot be shared on much the same principle as Dáil seats.

But the downside to all that is that we are left with a slower pace in place of decisive and radical action. It may help us know why, in a time of plenty, we still have huge housing and health problems.

Signs are that coalitions, and even minority governments, are here to stay. We must learn to better manage them.

Irish Independent

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