My feeling is that the electorate is looking for a new government that is serious about implement a consistent policy platform. Politicians in Labour have settled into thinking of the next government as coalitions as usual. It is true that the most likely government after the election will be the familiar coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, but we not simply rest and assume this will be so. If both Fine Gael and Labour truly believe in our respective manifestos, the differences between them and the importance of achieving as much as we can of our side, representatives of each should talk more openly of doing without the other.
We can’t expect this of Labour, whose fear of any association with those further to their left, whether Sinn Féin or the United Left Alliance, has locked them into negotiating over power in a coalition. Though they will still claim that it is their aim to be the larger party in such a coalition, with a 10 percent gap behind Fine Gael in the latest Sunday Business Poll, this does not have the credibility it might have had last summer.
So what of Fine Gael? I believe we need to firmly be talking of single-party government, and I welcome that Enda Kenny on The Week in Politics (30 Jan) has stated this as the aim and didn’t even get drawn into the idea of coalition. We might like to get the overall majority Noel O’Flynn thought was within our grasp. A next best would be getting over 70 seats, and relying on the support of Independent TDs, who may be quite critical and out-spoken, but who would broadly be closer to Fine Gael economic stance than to Labour’s. It was with the support of similar Independents that Cumann na nGaedheal led government to 1932. But even there the numbers seem difficult.
Micheál Martin has indicated that he might offer support to such a Fine Gael minority government. If Fine Gael don’t get enough seats to be able to depend on Independents, this would be, as far as I see it, a better situation than forming government with Labour. This would be as long as it would be on Fine Gael’s terms. Enda Kenny said that he would not support the Fianna Fáil view of the economy. Labour’s views, however, are that bit further from Fine Gael’s. In the national interest, some agreement, even if only on confidence and supply with no cabinet or other positions for Fianna Fáil, could be in the national interest.
It would also make arithmetic sense. Most governments formed in Ireland have been minimally winning, i.e. the smallest feasibly arrangement of parties over 83. In no election till now would an agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been anywhere near minimally winning, whatever their ideological proximity. Going on current polls, however, this will be the case. Adrian Kavanagh has projected seats of 68 Fine Gael, 40 Labour, 24 Fianna Fáil, 14 Sinn Féin and 20 Others based on the 30 January Sunday Business Post/Red C poll. Helpfully, he also tots up possible government combinations, showing only two combinations breaking 83, Fine Gael with either Labour or with Fianna Fáil.
If Fine Gael are to show that we are serious about getting as much as what is an ambitious series of policies implemented, we must be open to this confidence and supply arrangement, while our aim must be governance independent of any other party.
Brian Cowen implied yesterday in conversation with Bryan Dobson on Six One that it was a matter of principle that those serving as Ministers should be accountable before the people in a general election. This is a novel element of constitutional theory and the truer explanation was his statement in the same interview that this attempted reshuffle came at the request of Fianna Fáil members and backbenchers. The executive and the legislature have tied but distinct mandates, and in any job, even those coming to the end of their tenure and not subject to further review are expected to serve that time. That the Constitution allows the Taoiseach to appoint two Senators to cabinet is a clear indication of these distinct mandates.
But aside from any of that, the stories we’ve been told just don’t match up. When Dermot Ahern announced his retirement, he explained that this would not be a surprise to Brian Cowen, as he had explained to him on his appointment as Minister for Justice that he would not contest the next election. The idea that it was then wrong for Ahern to continue to serve in cabinet apparently did not occur to Cowen then. Add to that it was a common assumption that Mary Harney would retire from electoral politics once she no longer had a party banner.
So even if Cowen was right that party leaders in a coalition have free reign on the allocation of positions among their own members, it was a farce on false pretences, that doesn’t even stand up to what these people have been saying in recent statements. They’ve stopped even pretending to have any respect for the electorate.
When five Labour ministers left government in January 1987, an election was called and five sitting Fine Gael ministers double-jobbed until the new government came into office after the election.
When six Labour ministers left government in November 1994, Fianna Fáil continued in a caretaker role till late December. Sitting Fianna Fáil ministers took their place until the Rainbow government came into office.
We could be about six weeks till an election (we’ll probably be that bit longer), we’re in a similar situation. It would be farcical to have new people in cabinet. Even if they wouldn’t get ministerial pensions, they would have privilege without responsibility for that time. Nothing would surprise us, and Fianna Fáil are now so long gone that they don’t care about such precedent. But there really is no need to replace Mary Harney, Tony Killeen, Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern. Just as Cowen is taking on Foreign Affairs, others should share their jobs from tomorrow. They’ll be gone soon anyway.
Brian Cowen was clearly going to win yesterday’s confidence motion. That was obvious when he tabled the motion, which he wouldn’t have done had he not been sure after talking to the TDs that he safely had a majority. But despite now no longer being in cabinet, Micheál Martin has perhaps benefitted most from the events of recent days.
We know that as well as Martin, Mary Hanafin and Brian Lenihan had misgivings about Brian Cowen’s leadership. Hanafin’s response when asked last weekend about her views on Cowen’s leadership, which suggested that she accepted rather than supported him as leader, was one of the events that put pressure on Cowen. She remained publicly undeclared through the vote. Lenihan publicly supported Cowen on the RTÉ News at One yesterday, allowing him to be portrayed as dishonest by John McGuinness who said that Lenihan had canvassed against Cowen before Christmas. Martin managed to refer to Hanafin and Lenihan respectively in code when asked by Vincent Browne why he spoke out when he couldn’t be sure of success, “You can’t hide behind a bush or pull back from your position”.
Perhaps Micheál Martin should have resigned before the vote and otherwise better managed his attack, even knowing he was going to lose. But as the only one of the challengers to Brian Cowen who clearly set out his own stall, he has placed himself best for the post-election leadership contest. He was the most likely anyway; Lenihan is rightly seen as responsible for the decisions on banking in the last two and a half years, and Hanafin will be lucky to hold her seat in Dún Laoghaire.
Despite being the only person contesting this election who was appointed a minister with Brian Cowen in 1997 by Brian Cowen, he will have the room now to distance himself from the Taoiseach and the election result. And it is already possible to see where his initial rhetoric as leader will be. He talked last night with Vincent Browne, and a few weeks before on The Frontline, of a willingness to support from opposition to a government which continued the broad economic outlook of the current Programme for Government. Depending on the balance of numbers between Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Martin hint on the night of the results of cooperating with a minority Fine Gael government, what has been termed as a reverse Tallaght Strategy. It is almost unimaginable to think that Fianna Fáil would help Fine Gael to single-party government, or that Fine Gael would agree to govern under such a precarious arrangement, but even hinting at it would allow him to define a policy niche for Fianna Fáil.
In the past 150 years, there have been three significant wave elections in Ireland, which featured a significant change in the rank order of political parties since the previous election and a medium- to long-term change in the party system. We are now facing into the fourth.
1874 (and 1885) – Home Rule replaces Liberals
1868: Liberals – 66; Conservatives – 39
1874: Home Rule – 60; Conservatives – 33; Liberals – 10
The first of these was in 1874, when the new Home Rule League emerged as a political force led by Isaac Butt. In the previous few elections, after the demise of the Repeal Movement and the Independent Irish Party, the British Liberals and Conservatives were the only parties active in Ireland. In 1874, most of the Liberal support moved to Home Rulers. It took the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, as well as the nature of the close but difficult relationship between the Nationalists and the Liberals, to wipe the Liberals out as an active force in Ireland. Under his leadership in 1885, Home Rulers won 85 seats, with Conservatives winning 18, mainly confined to Ulster and the University of Dublin seats.
1918 – Sinn Féin replaces Home Rule
1910: Nationalist – 72; Unionists – 20; Liberal Unionists – 2; All-for-Ireland League – 6; Independents – 3
1918: Sinn Féin – 73; Unionists – 22; Nationalists – 6; Labour Unionists – 3; Independent Unionist – 1
The Nationalists maintained this dominance until 1918, even if in later years it suffered from factionalization. The rising in 1916 had put focus on Sinn Féin, a party founded in 1905 with an abstentionist policy advocating that Irish MPs should withdraw from Westminster and establish their own assembly in Dublin. They had a poor electoral record till 1917. During the First World War, the Nationalists in Westminster had been fighting against the introduction of conscription in Ireland. They were successful in that till 1917, and when they were finally beaten by the Government, they withdrew from parliament in protest. This was seen as an admission that the Sinn Féin approach was justified. It was then Sinn Féin’s activism that led to conscription being impossible to introduce, and Sinn Féin-backed candidates won a series of bye-elections in 1917 and 1918.
In December 1918 election, Sinn Féin broke through in full force. The Nationalists held only one seat outside of Ulster, William Archer Redmond in Waterford. Having been unopposed in election after election in many parts of the country, their electoral machine was no match against the vibrancy of the young Sinn Féin movement.
Sinn Féin then split in 1922 on the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In the four elections after the split, the rank order was the Pro-Treaty side, as Cumann na nGaedheal, followed by the Anti-Treaty side, as Fianna Fáil from 1926, followed by minor parties such as the Farmers’ Party, Labour, the National League and a large number of Independents. Though Cumann na nGaedheal governed alone, it did not have a majority and once Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil, it was dependent on the support of the Farmers and the Independents, which mainly represented business and Protestant interests.
1932 – Fianna Fáil beats Cumann na nGaedheal to top
1927: Cumann na nGaedheal – 62; Fianna Fáil – 57; Labour – 13; Farmers – 6; National league – 2; Irish Workers’ League – 1; Independent – 12
1932:Fianna Fáil – 72; Cumann na nGaedheal – 57; Labour – 7; Farmers – 4; Independent Labour – 2; Ind – 12
Then in 1932, Fianna Fáil won the most seats, and since then we have had a near uniform party system, with Fianna Fáil dominant, Fine Gael some way behind, followed by Labour and sometimes other parties. Only three times has this order been interfered with, when Clann na Talmhan moved ahead of Labour in 1933 and 1944, and the Progressive Democrats did so in 1987, but this did not last more than a single election. Under this party system, parties naturally pivoted around their relationship with Fianna Fáil. As long as Fianna Fáil insisted on ruling alone as a matter of principle, parties with natural differences such as the Fine Gael and Labour found themselves as regular partners in government.
2011 – Fine Gael and Labour set to pass out Fianna Fáil
2007: Fianna Fáil – 78; Fine Gael – 51; Labour – 20; Green Party – 6; Sinn Féin – 4; Progressive Democrats – 2; Independent – 5
2011 Latest Red C poll: Fine Gael 35%; Labour 21%, Fianna Fáil 14%, Sinn Féin 14%, Greens 4%, Others 12%
The polls have near consistently shown Fine Gael as the largest party in the next Dáil and it also looks likely that Labour could win enough to push Fianna Fáil to third place. A lot could change between now and the election, but the demoralising effect of ministerial retirements and the internal battles so close to an election could further depress Fianna Fáil voter turnout, while they remain toxic to transfers. Though it is likely that they will be closer to Labour in the final poll, they will fare poorly on transfers.
However well or poorly Fianna Fáil fare, they will be a very different party from now. Their raison d’être had been linked with their success, their belief that they embodied the Irish nation. Whether they become a small conservative nationalist party or a business and enterprise oriented party will depend very much on who remains.
While it is fair to expect Fine Gael and Labour to form the next government, it will be an unwieldy government, and this may be the last time for a generation where they are seen as natural government partners. Just as Cumann na nGaedheal did in the 1920s, Fine Gael could rely for its Dáil majority on sympathetic Independents. There is even a small possibility of this occurring this year, with Shane Ross having announced his intentions to stand, David McWilliams hinting. Were Declan Ganley to stand and be successful, he might support such a government with the assumption that on European matters Fine Gael would have the support of Labour. But such an arrangement remains yet only a distant possibility.
Just as it took two elections, 1880 and 1885, for the new party system after 1874 to emerge, we will be in a state of flux between parties for a little while yet. This election will be about the electorate giving its verdict on Fianna Fáil. Next time we should see the system that will remain for most of the early part of this century.
Derwin Brennan last week criticized the description of politics in terms of left and right, celebrating the centrism of Clinton Democrats and New Labour, as well as David Cameron’s compassionate conservatism (a term used before him by George W. Bush). But even if we can concede that the words themselves are limiting, we shouldn’t fear a debate along these lines. Already we are seeing in the support of parties that the divisions in Irish political are shifting more to a left–right division, and this will likely be accentuated in the coming general elections, and this will allow the public to understand more easily how different parties frame their understanding of political difference.
One of the interesting aspects of the reactions to the credit crunch and subsequent recession worldwide was how, broadly speaking, those on either side of the political divide framed a narrative that vindicated their own outlook. Those who had long spoken against the excesses of the market focused on the excesses of the capitalist system, whereas those who saw a problem with unwieldy government intervention focused on the overburdening public deficit and how the history of bailouts had eliminated the risks that should have been part of a capitalist system.
It is true that the use of the terms left and right can be quite reductive. People can be usually sure what is meant by left-wing, but if someone is described as right-wing, it is not as easy to tell where they stand on a range of issues. The crucial division is really whether one believes problems are best served by government or by individuals. It is quite possible to hold that because of the dispersed nature of information throughout society, individuals cooperating freely can handle economic decisions better than government, while respecting people’s decisions in their private lives, allowing all couples celebrate their relationships equally, and being suspicious of clerical influence on politics. Indeed, many liberals would in fact see this as naturally coherent.
The crisis in Ireland has awakened the realization the size of government is a serious question for debate. Our budgetary problem occurred because we did not properly realize that there are choices to be made in politics. The boom years have been characterized as high-point of capitalism, in part because of the stated ideology of some of those in power. But despite the supposed economic liberalism of Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney, many elements of what happened during their period in government made a mockery of capitalism. Whether it was favours granted to public sector unions through social partnership, or the great offenders in semi-state inefficiency and waste of FÁS and the HSE (incentally, in Mary Harney’s two departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and then Health and Children), or the aim of taking some people out of the tax net entirely, policy suffered from an inconsistent approach to government income and spending.
The debate on the role of government is important. We should not be fooled by vague centrism that we can avoid the choice between low taxes on the one hand and government provision of services on the other. The avoidance of this question led many to assume that taxes could be lowered while spending increased indefinitely. There are points along a scale where this effect is clear, such as the increase in revenue when capital gains tax was halved in 1998. But with spending increasing, the government found itself trapped by its commitments and then found that it could rely on a particular industry. It ignored the model of a free market, which would remain neutral between different industries, and supported the property bubble through incentives such as mortgage interest relief. Neither side of the divide on the political economy could have supported such a system; while one would have argued for lower government spending, the other would have argued for higher taxes. Either one of these would have been less resistant to boom and bust.
Yes, when we consider political positioning of parties, we mustn’t assume that there is a single axis on which we can usefully describe them. And parties do change their positioning over time. But if we decide to move away from thinking in ideological terms, we miss some of the important lessons of the last three years.