Monday 23 September 2019

Nobody will want to pay the price for this unwelcome Christmas poll gift

An election at this time is likely to cost Fine Gael more than it will cost Fianna Fail as voters look to apportion blame, writes Eoin O'Malley

LESSONS FROM HISTORY: Unless your name is Eamon de Valera, snap elections rarely help an incumbent Taoiseach’s party. Photo: Getty Images
LESSONS FROM HISTORY: Unless your name is Eamon de Valera, snap elections rarely help an incumbent Taoiseach’s party. Photo: Getty Images

Eoin O'Malley

If we do get an election for Christmas, the question in many voters' minds will be who delivered this unwelcome gift.

Voters will blame one or more of the main parties. The party faithful in Fine Gael will blame Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein for acts of treachery at a time when the country needs stability. The Fianna Fail faithful will blame Fine Gael for seeking to protect a bungling Tanaiste who can't get her story straight.

What of the ordinary voter? They do not want an election, the polls say that clearly enough, nor will they get that exercised by an election.

It used to be the case that you couldn't canvass during Coronation Street, but there's no equivalent today. If there is one, the voters get on with their Christmas shopping, pause Netflix when the doorbell rings, be reasonably polite to canvassers and then continue watching television.

But an election upsets the rhythm of the country, and voters will be grateful of the opportunity to apportion blame. Who gets that blame will be key to who does well in the election.

Unless your name is Eamon de Valera, snap elections rarely help an incumbent Taoiseach's party.

Dev was a master at getting a positive return for Fianna Fail from snap elections, but his successors have been less skilled or lucky.

A Taoiseach calling an election hopes to frame it as being about something, but it doesn't always work out. Charles Haughey went to the country in 1981, not exactly early - the snap had been taken out of it because it was three months later than planned - the Stardust fire intervened to prevent an election on the foot of a Fianna Fail Ard Fheis. Haughey eventually called the election on the issue "of the grave and tragic situation in Northern Ireland", but it soon became clear that the economy would dominate the election.

Fianna Fail was on weak economic ground and lost power to a resurgent Fine Gael under Garret FitzGerald.

A Fianna Fail overall majority eluded Haughey in 1987, but he took power anyway through an informal Confidence and Supply agreement with the then Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes, in what was known as the Tallaght Strategy.

Haughey wasn't excessively constrained by leading a minority government - he was probably at the height of his powers. Yet he went to the country in the early summer of 1989 because the Government lost a vote on funding for haemophiliacs with HIV. It was over a small amount of money to support a small group that had been infected by blood products given to them by the State.

When it lost the vote, there was a sense in Fianna Fail that Fine Gael's support was no longer certain. Haughey went to the county asking for a majority to get stability and avoid "multi-party chaos".

Much of the first week of the campaign centred on whether the election was necessary or whether Haughey could have continued to govern. It was a debate he lost.

That wasn't all he lost. His healthy poll lead quickly dissipated, and Fianna Fail lost four seats. Haughey maintained office only by entering a coalition with the PDs.

It was that government that Albert Reynolds took over. He was never enthusiastic about the "temporary little arrangement" with the PDs.

The Government never worked, and when the two principals, Reynolds and Des O'Malley, made accusations against each other in the Beef Tribunal, it was clear that any trust that existed had vanished.

O'Malley suggested that Reynolds was determined to bring down the Government, claiming that he and Reynolds had no communications outside Cabinet. Reynolds described this as "crap, pure crap", but polls suggested that Reynolds was blamed.

It was, at the time, Fianna Fail's worst ever electoral performance. The PDs picked up seats, and Reynolds only saved his career by forming a government with the buoyant Labour Party.

Since then, no Taoiseach has ever voluntarily gone to the country early.

Bertie Ahern always managed to do what was needed to make his governments last, including sacking ministers if that was deemed necessary.

The current dispute is a little too obscure for most people to form their own judgments as to who is to blame for an inopportune election. Fine Gael will point to the Confidence and Supply agreement and say Fianna Fail broke it.

On the face of it, it's hard to disagree: "Fianna Fail agrees to vote against or abstain on any motions of no confidence in the Government, Ministers, and financial measures recognised as confidence measures."

Paschal Donohoe referred to the "Fianna Fail locker room", a clear suggestion that this is about muscle-flexing. Certainly, Micheal Martin can't back down now. 'Bottler' would go on his political gravestone. But Fine Gael is doing some of its own muscle-flexing, briefing familiar language of the party "not being bullied" or offering a "head on a plate".

The problem for Fine Gael is that all the other parties have essentially the same story. Labour stated that this 'crisis' is a result of Alan Kelly asking questions, but that those "questions were not answered in an honest, straight-forward manner" - the message voters believe is the most repeated, the most consistent and the easiest to understand.

We got to see Frances Fitzgerald last week trying to explain what happened. It was shambolic. If there is an election, expect Fine Gael to get the blame.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is the Director of MSc in the Public Policy School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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