Tuesday 26 March 2019

Editorial: 'Our political culture is in need of a full-scale reboot'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Editorial

Editorial

Let us be honest. Nobody, least of all its principals, quite expected this strange hybrid-minority Coalition to last the greater part of three years.

That of itself is something of a recommendation, because it tells us that our 100-year-old parliament and democratic institutions are more robust and adaptable than we would have believed.

But survival is not an end in itself and being in office is a far cry from being empowered to advance the interests of all the Irish people - surely the job of any government worthy of the name.

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Just days short of the third anniversary of a strange General Election on February 26, 2016, which yielded an even stranger result, it is time for an honest appraisal of our politics.

The 2016 election brought us an astonishing shift in the balance of political power between the two biggest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

In the previous election of February 2011, Fianna Fáil suffered an electoral meltdown which saw it sink lower than the ill-fated old Irish Parliamentary Party in December 1918. Only proportional representation saved the self-styled 'Soldiers of Destiny' from oblivion, as the party struggled back with just 20 TDs, while Fine Gael scored the biggest triumph in its history, returning 76 TDs.

In February 2016, Fianna Fáil returned 44 TDs, just six short of Fine Gael, which suffered a serious reverse. But this last election was far from restoring the old two-and-a-half-party system.

Just 30 years ago, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had a cumulative 80pc of the national vote; in 2016, the cumulative was below 50pc.

What we have seen is the rise of Independents, smaller parties and the slow progress of Sinn Féin.

The overall outcome was a hung Dáil, with far too many groups shunning their obligation to the voters to deliver a functioning government with the mandate given to the various politicians.

It took a phenomenal 70 days to get an agreed form of government. While the Irish people have adapted their political culture to coalitions over the past 40 years, the Confidence and Supply deal that was finally approved on May 6, 2016 was something else again.

It brought in a Fine Gael-led Coalition, engaging diverse Independents and functioning with the grace and favour of Fianna Fáil. We have noted that it defied pundits and politicians to persist and might be adapted to offer benefits in the future, with less political cant and a more honest cross-party approach to problems like housing and health.

On the biggest challenge facing the Government, Brexit has offered a semblance of cross-party unity, which has been valuable. But the resultant political sclerosis is increasing to impede effective government in this country.

Now is not the time for a general election as we are little more than five weeks from the Brexit deadline and a no-deal crash-out threatens.

But we have to recognise the shortcomings of the current arrangement and reflect on political choices in the next election, which must deliver a better-functioning government.

The more voters focus on the intensely local and individual, the more we risk being deprived of a government which will put the greater good permanently at the heart of our politics.

Irish Independent

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