Thursday 23 May 2019

Making this work will test Kenny and FG to their limit

Taoiseach Enda Kenny arrives at Áras an Uachtaráin to receive his seal of office from Michael D Higgins, watched by the President's pet dogs Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Taoiseach Enda Kenny arrives at Áras an Uachtaráin to receive his seal of office from Michael D Higgins, watched by the President's pet dogs Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Theresa Reidy

A Fine Gael-led minority government was finally installed yesterday.

Managing the diverse groups and often perverse incentives of party and non-party TDs will severely test the skills of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Fine Gael is joined in office by nine Independent TDs. Crucially, several of the Independents will hold cabinet ministries.

The Government will be facilitated from the opposition benches through a Confidence and Supply Arrangement agreed between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. It took 10 weeks to arrive at this configuration of government.

The outcome is certainly different but whether it will yield the much-mooted 'new politics' remains to be seen.

There is some irony in the fact that this era of 'new politics' should be heralded in by the longest-serving member of the Dáil.

Having become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected, Enda Kenny has now expanded his entry in the history books. One of the great survivors of Irish politics, he has confounded his critics time and again.

He struggles in elections and media interviews clearly challenge him, but he led the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government for its full term, oversaw the end of the bailout programme, and has secured re-election by a hairsbreadth.

Having already made clear that he will not contest the next election as party leader, Mr Kenny will be expected to turn his considerable management skills to keeping the minority government afloat.

It will be a mammoth challenge, but electorally and politically, he may be the best-placed person to navigate the minefields of new politics. His time as party leader is limited but Fine Gael might be well advised to leave him as Taoiseach until new politics becomes established over the next few months.

In many respects, 'new politics' as an idea is so nebulous that it is almost meaningless. There are varying interpretations of what 'new politics' means and what it will look like in policy terms. For some, it means a fundamental reorientation of policy-making, with greater emphasis on the provision of services for citizens. For others, it has a more technical dimension, which focuses on how the business of politics is conducted, most especially procedures in the Dáil.

The new Dáil has more political parties and more Independent TDs and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have seen their combined vote share drop below 50pc.

The ideological composition of the Dáil has shifted in tandem with the overall numbers. The far left has grown in strength, with AAA-PBP having doubled their numbers. Sinn Féin has greater numbers and there are also a few left-leaning Independents.

Nevertheless, the centre (left and right) is still dominant and this is reflected in the government agreement documents which have been published. When people come to evaluate the new politics, their final evaluation will be coloured by their own ideological orientation.

For many on the left, there will be deep disappointment at the policy choices of the new Government, but there is no escaping the political arithmetic, which means that the far left is still a minority force in Irish politics.

There is a possibility that the political fragmentation will yield a new way of doing business in the Dáil. Minority governments must engage in issue-by-issue negotiation with opposition parties if they are to get their programme enacted. The Government will have to share power in setting the Dáil agenda. If it doesn't adapt to this quickly, it will suffer regular defeats.

It came close to seizing defeat from the jaws of victory yesterday by bringing negotiations to a conclusion before everyone and everything was agreed. Ending debates on legislation before a substantial majority of TDs are satisfied that the detail has been rigorously examined will have to be a thing of the past; the guillotine will go into retirement for this Dáil.

A committee has been established to look at how the Dáil will operate for its new term and we await its conclusions. Some important changes have already been implemented; the Ceann Comhairle was elected and Dáil committee chair positions will be allocated on a proportional basis, rather than the previous winner-takes-all approach. This means there will be important roles for members of opposition parties on a great many policy committees. But equally, government backbenchers will have to engage more with committee work.

It is common practice in other parliaments that there is a lead government member on a committee when the chairmanship is held by the opposition. Redesigned committees should deliver a more considered and cross-party approach to policy, but this will only happen if TDs are willing to invest in this new way of doing business.

This is one of the biggest challenges to new politics. Some 41pc of respondents to the RTÉ exit poll indicated that choosing a candidate to look after the needs of the constituency was most important for them. Successive studies have also shown that large numbers of voters want their TDs to prioritise constituency work.

TDs have mixed incentives. In theory, they are elected to govern but in practice they face a multitude of competing expectations from voters.

Further complicating the Dáil mix is the reality that the recent election returned a small but vocal group of TDs who oppose the very basis of the economic and social system.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist in the Department of Government at University College Cork

Irish Independent

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