Wednesday 20 November 2019

Voters may yet order Soldiers of Destiny to march into an alliance with Fine Gael

Micheal Martin and Enda Kenny
Micheal Martin and Enda Kenny

James Downey

Fianna Fáil took a battering of epic proportions in the general election exactly four years ago. The party would have to pick itself up, dust itself off and start all over again.

Everybody knew that the starting again would not be easy. And nobody knew that better than Micheál Martin. He also knew that the operation had better start without delay.

He was handicapped in many ways. He had served for 14 years in Fianna Fáil governments, and would assuredly get more than his fair share of the blame for the crisis and the suffering it caused.

He was hampered by his party's tiny share of Oireachtas representation and the almost complete absence of women.

Its Dáil membership came to only 20, soon to be reduced to 19 by the untimely death of Brian Lenihan. They did not include a single woman - a grave defect at a time when female representation in politics had become a major issue.

And Fianna Fáil needed some fresh blood in the Seanad.

He moved, quietly enough, to alleviate these problems. But his attempts to inject the fresh blood were resisted, and only two women were elected to the Seanad. These were not major blows, but the latter was a real disappointment.

On the wider front, he faced a Fine Gael-Labour Coalition with a record majority and, as it seemed, an excellent chance of winning a second general election when the time came.

All Dáil oppositions have difficulty making their presence felt. The system works against them in many ways. Due to its paucity of numbers and the psychological blows inflicted by the 2011 election results, Fianna Fáil was marginalised.

The Government sets the political agenda. The Opposition has to try hard to make itself relevant. It can do so by mounting worthwhile criticism of Government measures, based on research and analysis. As usual, this did not happen, or happened only in minor ways, lacking impact.

Besides, the Fine Gael-Labour Government battled bravely in the face of dreadful circumstances, to such effect that at last we began, or thought we had begun, to see the "green shoots" of recovery emerging.

Then, last year, several things happened at once. A flood of controversies lashed the Government. The mortgage crisis began to come to a head. And the first serious campaign against a specific policy gathered strength.

This campaign is not really about water charges. It represents a variety of discontents. Hitherto, Ireland had gained praise for remaining calm. Now we witnessed mass protests and even violence.

In former times, Fianna Fáil would have exploited, often cynically, every trouble. To Mr Martin's credit, that is not his style. But we have now had four years in which to note how feeble and ill-judged has been Fianna Fáil's analysis and criticism of important Government policies.

This once monolithic party has been openly divided on several issues and has evidently charged at them without forethought.

One example was the attempt to mount a campaign against the property tax. It came to nothing. More recently, open internal divisions emerged on the proposed sale of Aer Lingus to IAG.

The party seems to have no policy on reform of local government. The argument here has taken place between Labour and Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil did remarkably well in the local elections while ignoring the question of reform.

But the most curious and most pointless - though absolutely predictable - argument has drawn in all those three parties. This is the one about the formation of a new government after the next general election.

Although the election may not take place for more than a year, the political world is obsessed with it. Understandable, in view of the uncertainty and the multitude of options, but must we continue to dwell on it for a whole year?

Lately we have heard a contribution from what might seem an unlikely source. Michael Noonan has publicly envisaged a government composed of Fine Gael, Labour and independents.

Coming from such an imposing personality, we presumably have to take this proposition seriously. Is the same true of a proposal which has divided opinion in Fianna Fáil, an alliance between that party and Sinn Féin. Which is the wolf here, and which the lamb?

Still more intriguingly, we have all heard the story, from doubtless reliable sources, about an argument between Barry Cowen and John McGuinness.

According to the reports, Mr Cowen proposed at a meeting that Fianna Fáil should rule out a coalition with Fine Gael. Mr McGuinness replied in colourful language and then said that "the people will decide who goes into government."

To put it bluntly, I can't see that Mr Cowen's proposal was plausible or even possible. Ruling out a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition would deprive us of one of the most obvious options for some sort of credible and stable government.

Let us look at some of the other options.

Fine Gael and Labour? Most unlikely to command a Dáil majority. That could bring Mr Noonan's proposition into play. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin? Too soon, never mind the many other considerations. Could the new party which Lucinda Creighton plans to launch any day now become a player?

An alliance between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, even to the extent of an amalgamation, makes perfect sense.

It would bring about the reconfiguration of the system for which so many of us have wished for so long. It would repair the "Sinn Féin split" of 1921, which should never have occurred. It would copperfasten the view that there is no real difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

But Mr McGuinness made a more important point. The shape of a government is determined by the expressed wishes of the voters.

The people will decide.

Irish Independent

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