Thursday 22 August 2019

Liam Weeks: ''Temporary little arrangement' could be the future, not just a short-term fix'

A side-effect of Brexit has brought stability to our politics - government can be by consensus not Colosseum, writes Liam Weeks

Mette Frederiksen, leader of Denmark's Social Democrats. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix via AP
Mette Frederiksen, leader of Denmark's Social Democrats. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix via AP

It is quite remarkable how Brexit, the source of so much political instability for our closest neighbours, has been the root cause of stability on this side of the pond.

While Brexit has already resulted in the loss of two prime ministers, and led to the fracturing of British politics in an extraordinary manner, in Ireland it has been the stopgap that has temporarily stabilised our political system.

It has resulted in what many believed to be a temporary little arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail surviving into its fourth year.

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That agreement only came about because there was nothing else on offer after the indecisive result of the February 2016 election. The only other option was to return to the people for another vote, a solution that offered little prospect of resolving the deadlock.

Even so, it was expected that this would be forced on the electorate much sooner rather than later, such was the fragile nature of the Government that ultimately formed in May of that year.

Many have forgotten about this level of instability that the last election was supposed to have heralded. It resulted in the most fragmented Dail since June 1927, with the two Civil War parties being rejected by a majority of voters for the first time since their formation.

It also produced two sizeable non-governing blocs in Sinn Fein and Independents, the presence of both of whom contributed to the difficulty in manufacturing a stable arrangement. "A very difficult piece of puzzledom", to borrow from Flann O'Brien, was how Professors Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh described the outcome in How Ireland Voted 2016, an academic study of "the election that nobody won".

It ultimately took 70 days to solve this puzzle and form a government, the longest such time since the foundation of the State.

The confidence and supply arrangement which ensued was the first of its type in Irish politics, and was the smallest ever government, with the opposition having twice as many seats as Fine Gael.

Even if Fianna Fail could stomach its new role between opposition and government, the additional reliance on so many Independents of so many hues, and including them in Cabinet for the first time since 1948, meant that few could foresee the arrangement seeing out the year.

Many sage commentators predicted a period of short-lived Dails and unwanted instability to follow, reminiscent of the 1981-82 period, when there were three elections in 18 months.

And this may well have happened. But then we had Brexit, which came just six weeks into the lifetime of the current Government.

And it changed everything.

The political turmoil that might have resulted from a novel experiment in the form of confidence and supply was quelled by an unprecedented issue that forced the two main parties to pull together in the national interest.

No one wanted an election until the Brexit process was resolved, and its prolonged nature has been an unexpected source of stability.

As we enter what are likely to be the last 12 months of the confidence and supply agreement, it is worth asking if this is an experiment worth repeating, especially in an environment where there might not be an issue like Brexit to provide the necessary oxygen.

Writing in this paper last week, former Fianna Fail minister Mary O'Rourke wondered if we could learn from the experience elsewhere of confidence and supply.

This is not the place for the kind of academic study she was looking for, but it is worth noting that although our current Government, where a party supports another but stays out of office, is unusual in the Irish context, it is not so uncommon from an international perspective.

In 2017, a dozen other European democracies experienced that phenomenon. While the nature of the agreements varied from one country to another, the general idea is that for some parties it is more preferable to be out of office but influencing policy, than in government and taking all the blame.

In two countries in particular, this type of government has become a regular occurrence. Both Denmark and New Zealand are often a source of comparison with Ireland given their size and relative stability. Both are seen as successful democracies and economies to which Ireland could aspire, but what is rarely commented on is how they have achieved this with a frequent practice of minority governments and confidence and supply arrangements.

The Social Democrats' Mette Frederiksen became prime minister just two weeks ago, for example, even though her party has only 48 MPs in the 179-seat Danish parliament, an even smaller number than Leo Varadkar controls in the Dail.

But while the Taoiseach is beholden to one other party for his place in power, Ms Frederiksen negotiated an agreement with three other parties, the Social Liberals, the Socialist People's Party, and the Red-Green Alliance.

None of these parties is taking up any seats in cabinet, but no one has batted an eyelid, as this is a regular occurrence in Danish politics. More importantly, the frequency of minority government has not impacted on Denmark being able to run itself in a stable and efficient manner.

One of the reasons for this is because there is no Westminster winner-takes-all attitude which would entail the opposition being frozen out from the policy-making process. Parties in Denmark don't need to be in government to wield influence - they can have considerable power in parliament, particularly via the committee system. In this way, parliament is seen as more of a power-sharing arena than the gladiatorial Colosseum.

New Zealand is a different type of democracy, but it has had confidence and supply for almost 20 consecutive years. The current government is a minority coalition of Labour and New Zealand First, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern dependent on external support from the Greens.

In spite of the frequency of these types of governing arrangements, New Zealand is only a recent convert to confidence and supply, partly a product of a change in its voting system in the 1990s.

But, as with the Danish case, this new type of politics did not affect New Zealand's stability and efficiency, and it was one of the few countries to escape the worst of the recent global recession.

What these examples highlight is that confidence and supply need not be a one-off arrangement, nor be a recipe for disaster. Indeed, given the likelihood of more indecisive election results in the future, it might be a necessary outcome.

Many might despair at this prospect, especially considering the widely held belief this has been a 'do-nothing' Dail. But all new politics takes time to find its feet. And it is obvious there needs to be changes in both the political culture and parliamentary rules for confidence and supply to work better.

There is no reason why it cannot. We should not condemn ourselves to using a Westminster type of politics that can only exacerbate political divisions as is most apparent in the likes of the UK, the US and India, where this system prevails. Instead, it might be time to move towards a European consensus-style system, where politics is more about reaching a compromise than forcing one view on another. This, after all, was how we resolved the issue of abortion with the citizens' assembly.

Such a cultural change requires patience with the political process during a time of transition, something which is in short supply.

In the meantime, we will have to continue to rely on the mess that is Brexit for stability.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at UCC

Sunday Independent

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