Most of the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis meant little to me. There was nothing in Micheál Martin’s speech that made me feel that the party was on the cusp of a recovery or that they were going to offer a particularly distinctive voice. I acknowledge Martin’s apology on behalf of his party, but he could have made it stronger by referring directly to his time in cabinet. Philip O’Connor draws attention to his equivocations in this piece in The Journal. I found the whole speech, with all the time devoted to bins in Dublin, a little underwhelming. But of course I’d think that, wouldn’t I?
But I did notice that the Ard Fheis passed motions supporting marriage equality and for same-sex couples to be considered for adoption. They are to be commended for this, as is Martin for making his personal support clear on The Week in Politics last night. I noticed a lot of commentary on Facebook which was quite cynical in relation to this. But I don’t think it reflects any cynical attempt to gain votes which they weren’t interested in while they were in power, rather the very rapid social change on this matter. This is a growing norm, and as we look to what exists in other countries and in US states, very little has been offered on the other side.
I see no substantial reason that we would not see Fine Gael move in the same way. We might have a reputation because some of prominent members as being conservative and there is a Christian democratic tradition, but doesn’t necessarily mean an opposition to progress on this front. I’ve pointed on a number of occasions to the speech Charlie Flanagan made during the civil partnership debate. Others too from Fine Gael spoke during that same debate who stated explicitly or indirectly that civil partnership would only be a step towards equality, such as Dr James Reilly, Deirdre Clune and Simon Coveney, who gave a very honest speech on how he changed his own mind to support marriage. Of the 2011 intake, Seán Kyne urged Young Fine Gael members to vote for equal marriage at our summer school last July, and he as well as Simon Harris put questions recently to Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, to make provision for children of same-sex couples.
What ultimately matters is that we support this before the referendum, which I expect could be in the second half of this government’s term in office, around 2015, to give time for the Constitution Convention to deliberate on this and its other issues. There will be another Ard Fheis before then, but we should move now, and vote on this at our Ard Fheis at the end of March. We should not let time go as the only party not in support of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. We should also give ourselves the chance to include this the party’s submission to the Constitutional Convention.
As this is moving closer to being a reality, we are going to have to start thinking about the specifics of how this change should take place. I had previously followed on the logic of Zappone–Gilligan that this could be achieved legislatively by amending the Civil Registration Act 2004. This view was argued by constitutional lawyers Sen. Ivana Bacik, SC, and Gerard Hogan, now a High Court Justice. But having asked other constitutional lawyers, there is enough doubt on this that I know think it should be put to a referendum. Article 41 as a whole does envisage a heterosexual marriage, as seen in provisions (which should be amended, if not deleted) such as a recognition of the duties of mothers within the home. I have no doubt in my mind that with a good campaign, it can be won.
Considering other provisions in the Constitution prohibiting sex discrimination (Articles 9.1.3° and 16.1.1°–3°), I would propose:
Article 41 of the Constitution is hereby amended as follows:
(a) insert new subsection 2°, “Ní bheidh aon chosc ar phósadh idir bheirt toisc iad bheith fireann nó baineann.”, after section 1° of section 3 of the English text,
(b) insert new subsection 2°, “No two people may be excluded from marriage by reason of their sex.”, after section 1° of section 3 of the English text,
(b) subsections 2° and 3° of section 3 of both texts shall be numbered as subsections 3° and 4°.
The leading parties this year differ from those in 1945, the first contested election, but as the only election to date where an Independent candidate secured a place on the ballot by canvassing the support of Oireachtas members, and with reports today that David Norris could well be successful in his attempts to secure a nomination in this way, it is interesting to read back on this year.
Seán T. O’Kelly, then Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, was chosen as the Fianna Fáil party candidate. Fine Gael had been declining in support, losing seats and votes at each election since 1933, and at the outset were reluctant to contest. On 11 April, The Irish Times reported that the only likely candidate was Dr Patrick McCartan. This report also included a statement from Labour that “no member of the Labour Party in the Oireachtas may sign a nomination on behalf of any Presidential candidate or associate himself in promoting any such candidate”.
Patrick McCartan had been a member of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Dála, elected in 1918, 1921 and 1922. He reluctantly voted for the Treaty, and soon after retreated from political life, not contesting the 1923 general election. By 1945, he was associated with anti-de Valera Republicans, and received the support of the Old Comrades’ Association of the IRA (Irish Times, April 1945). McCartan had to secure the support of either four County Councils or 20 Oireachtas members; he fared poorly with the former, while working quietly on the latter.
The prospect of an Independent candidate spurred Fine Gael to action, who nominated Seán Mac Eoin, an IRA leader during the war of independence. His paper was submitted on 6 May 1945 with 17 Fine Gael signatories, as well as Independent TDs Alfie Byrne, Thomas Reilly and Richard A. Anthony.
On 15 May, Labour Party then reversed their decision, and allowed their members to sign a nomination form, perhaps concerned by then that a straight contest between the two largest parties would give Fine Gael too much of a dominant position within the opposition. Patrick McCartan was nominated with the support of 9 of the 11 Clann na Talmhan TDs, 5 of the eight Labour TDs and 6 Labour Senators. His Labour nominees included future leader Brendan Corish. This year, it is the many Independents, Fianna Fáil, Socialist Party and People Before Profit TDs and Senators who are free from any direct order as to who to nominate, while it is still not precisely sure what Sinn Féin will do.
The high salary of the president, at £22 000, was an issue in the campaign; Clann na Talmhan had agreed to sign McCartan’s form on the condition that he would accept a reduction to £5000 with expenses of £2500.
Patrick McCartan performed reasonably in the election, and transferred relatively strongly to Seán Mac Eoin, despite ideological differences, presaging the success of Clann na Poblachta in 1948 and the formation of the Inter-Party government.
|Candidate||First Count||Second Count|
|Patrick McCartan (Ind)||212,834||19.6%||-212,834|
|Seán Mac Eoin (FG)||335,539||30.9%||+117,886||55.4%||453,425|
|Seán T. O’Kelly (FF)||537,965||49.5%||+27,200||12.8%||565,165|
So Seán T. O’Kelly was elected on the second count and was unopposed when he nominated himself for re-election in 1952, serving till 1959.
From September 2005 to November 2008 I was a supporter of a government party. Now again, I find myself in the position of government cheerleader. It is great to enjoy days like yesterday. Enda Kenny seemed quite comfortable in his new role. The speech from Simon Harris nominating him, who at 24 is the same age Enda was when he entered the Dáil in 1975, clearly meant a lot to him. Enda himself spoke well, and was able for the odd riposte across the chamber. Of course, supporting the government also means living with and in some small way answering for unpopular decisions. And though the people recognize that the new government can’t be blamed for why there are changes needed, the manner will not always be popular, and it might sometimes be the wrong approach.
As the campaign began in early February, I was reading David Laws’ recent book, 22 Days in May, his account of the negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and both of the two larger parties after last year’s election. Their choices were a minority Labour-LibDem coalition, supporting a minority Conservative government in a confidence and supply arrangement, or full coalition with the Conservatives. They explored all options, but given the perceived need for stable government, a full coalition with a comfortable majority seemed the safest and most likely option, whatever hesitance there was within their party to forming a coalition with the Tories after years of hoping for a centre-left alignment.
In the Irish situation, it was the largest party that had the advantage. Fine Gael came out of the election with 76 seats, short of the 83 required for a majority. As in Britain, full coalition was always the most likely given the perceived stability from a majority government. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, Fine Gael did not explore the other options at all. While it mightn’t have hurt to have tested the possibility of Independent support, coalition seemed the inevitable outcome.
I’m pleased enough with the Programme for Government, but it really is too early to tell it will be like. We will be able to start to judge by the summer, when we have seen the first initiatives from each Minister. But importantly, how well the new government be at renegotiating the interest rate on our EU/IMF loan, and whether Ireland will have to concede on our corporation tax base. This we cannot know from the Programme.
Fine Gael identified a reduction of 145 quangos through consolidation of functions. Let’s hope this is implemented. Both parties had clear commitments to political reform, which will be hard for them to avoid now, which will be at least one area that the new government should be remembered for. I look forward to the social reforms which are to be discussed in the Constitutional Convention, and I would hope to get involved if possible.
It is a compromise between two parties. Of course it would be, such is the nature of coalition. The number of voluntary public sector redundancies, is a compromise between the two manifesto commitments, as is the target itself for deficit reduction of 2015. Fine Gael measures on competitiveness are in the Programme, with the proposed lowering the 13.5% rate of VAT, cutting the travel tax and halving PRSI on low-wage workers.
Aside from headline economic commitments, any Programme for Government will have statements on some interesting side issues. In defence, it commits the government to “enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law.” Fair enough, there should have been checks on flights through Shannon to ascertain whether they were being used for transportation of torture victims. But I would also liked to have seen a review of our Triple Lock system, which deprives Ireland of an independent foreign policy by tying it to that of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, through their UN Security Council veto?
On bioethics, there is a commitment to formalise parental responsibilities arising from assisted reproduction, something which is of growing importance to clarify. There is also a commitment to change organ donation from an opt-in to an opt-out system, which will be welcome to some, depending on its implementation.
So I look forward to these years, an interesting time for the politics of this country. Though it will all be to small avail if we cannot get a significantly better deal from the IMF and ECB.
We hear a lot about the fate of coalition partners after coalitions, particularly that of junior parties. Here is a full breakdown of how parties have fared in the elections after coalition.
Inter-Party government 1948–51
Comprised of 31 Fine Gael, 14 Labour, 10 Clann na Poblachta, 7 Clann na Talmhan, 5 National Labour, with the support of 8 Independents. Fine Gael had been on a downward trend since its first election in 1937 and the government gave it a real lease of life.
National Labour folded back into Labour in 1950.
After the fall of the government in 1951, Fine Gael increased to 40 (+9), while all smaller parties lost seats. Labour got 16 (-3), Clann na Talmhan 6 (-1) and Clann na Poblachta 2 (-8).
Inter-Party government 1954–57
In 1954, 50 Fine Gael, 19 Labour, 5 Clann na Talmhan.
In 1957, all parties lost seats: 40 Fine Gael (-10), 12 Labour (-7), 3 Clann na Talmhan (-2)
Fine Gael–Labour 1973–77
In 1973, it started 54 Fine Gael and 19 Labour.
In 1977, both parties fell: 43 Fine Gael (-11) and 17 Labour (-2).
Fine Gael–Labour 1981–82
Started in June 1981 with 65 Fine Gael and 15 Labour. Was always a minority government, it initially had the support of Jim Kemmy, while four Independents and small party representatives tactically abstained, until the January 1982 budget vote.
In the February 1982 election, Fine Gael fell to 63 (-2), while Labour had no change at 15.
Fine Gael–Labour 1982–87
In 1982, 70 Fine Gael and 16 Labour.
In 1987, a dreadful result for both parties, 51 Fine Gael (-19) and 12 Labour (-4). The emergent Progressive Democrats took support from Fine Gael and pushed Labour into fourth place.
Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats 1989–92
In 1989, 77 Fianna Fáil and 6 Progressive Democrats.
In 1992, the PDs became the first junior coalition party to increase its seats after an election. Between the two parties in 1992, they had 68 Fianna Fáil (-9) and 10 Progressive Democrats (+4).
Fianna Fáil–Labour 1993–94
Fine Gael–Labour–Democratic Left 1994–97
The 27th Dáil saw two governments. Political legend has it that Labour lost support because they went into government with Fianna Fáil. But according to Pat Leahy’s Showtime, their support was still high in November 1994. If this is true, then it was their political promiscuity rather than their support for Fianna Fáil as such that hurt them.
Overall figures for 1992 saw 68 Fianna Fáil, 45 Fine Gael, 33 Labour, 10 Progressive Democrats, 4 Democratic Left, 1 Green and 5 Independents.
In 1997, Labour and the PDs lost out: 77 Fianna Fáil (+9), 54 Fine Gael (+9), 17 Labour (-16), 4 Progressive Democrats (-6), 2 Green (+1), 1 Sinn Féin, 1 Socialist and 6 Independents (+1)
Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats 1997–2002
After a full term, both parties increased their seats: 81 Fianna Fáil (+4) and 8 Progressive Democrats (+4). Again the PDs proved the only junior party to increase seats after government.
Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats 2002–07
Of course, the PDs were not so lucky the third time they entered an election while in government. In 2007, both parties fell to 78 Fianna Fáil (-3) and 2 Progressive Democrats (-6).
Fianna Fáil–Green Party–Progressive Democrats 2007–11
Bertie Ahern formed a government in 2007 comprised on 78 Fianna Fáil, 6 Greens and 2 Progressive Democrats and the support of 4 Independents. The PDs were on our last legs anyway at the formation of the government, and we voted to dissolve in November 2008. And then nine days ago, Fianna Fáil fell to 20 seats (-58) while all six Greens lost their seats.
So across all coalitions, only twice had the junior party made gains at the next election, the Progressive Democrats in 1992 and 2002. And that party’s later electoral record is probably not something anyone would wish to cling to as a hopeful outcome. Having said that, none of this can inform of the counterfactuals, how a party would have fared at a subsequent election had they stayed out of government.
Thankfully, we seem finally to have heard the end of the line of questioning that implied that Fine Gael and Labour should have put forward a joint policy platform so that people would know what they were voting for. Fourteen months ago, I outlined how I believed this election would be about a fight between Fine Gael and Labour on the balance of the next government. I had presumed rough figures of Fine Gael around 65 seats, Fianna Fáil around 50 and Labour around 40, and that the fight would be about whether Fine Gael or Labour get Minister for Finance.
In such a circumstance, even with figures closer to current expectations, where we were nearly certain that there was going to be a coalition, it wouldn’t make sense to negotiate details of a programme for government before an election. The fine balance of the weight of such a programme between preferences of the two parties would have to depend on seats. For the two parties to arrange details before the election would deny voters the chance to decide that balance. I believe there were only such formal pre-election arrangements in 1973, 1997 and 2007. The idea that it is a problem that two different parties have different ideals seems to me nothing more than a Fianna Fáil ploy to confuse matters, and which someone like Vincent Browne likes to tag on to just as a consistent line of questioning. It shouldn’t even make sense a Fianna Fáil scare tactic when they point to differences between Fine Gael and Labour; if voters want coherent government, they should surely then vote for Fine Gael to make coalition less likely.
But consider even the stated aims of the two parties. Labour’s aim is to lead government, as we know from their poster slogan, Gilmore for Taoiseach. In all honesty, when I saw the first one of those, I presumed it was an overenthusiastic attempt by a private Labour member. On current seat projections, Gilmore could only be Taoiseach if he led a coalition of Labour, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and Independents of different hues. Put another way, Labour are standing 58 candidates and Fine Gael currently have 51 TDs. To lead a coalition with Fine Gael, nearly every Labour candidate would have to win, while Fine Gael made only modest gains. Labour should be questioned on the maths as they see it working out for this slogan which I’d imagine has only damaged them. They claim to be offering the people of a Labour-led government for the first time, but the electorate always had that choice; what makes this election any different? To 1992, for example?
Fine Gael’s ambition on the other hand, is single-party government. A lot of work yet needs to be done to achieve this, but as a goal, it is realistic. The Sunday Business Post/Red C poll certainly shows things trending in that direction. The party’s Five Point Plan is well known by now, and in government the party would wish to have the freedom to implement it all. Of course, if the numbers stack such that a coalition is the only option, it will be negotiated based on the parties’ strength, as has been done before. But it would be an unwieldy government, with strongly differing tendencies. So single-party government is the aim, with no wish to compromise on it at all.
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 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.
This was a disappointing election for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. As David Schneider tweeted, “Was the whole LibDem thing something I dreamed in the shower?”. With 63 MPs at the dissolution of the Commons on 6 May, they returned with only 57. These included a few high-profile losses, such as Lembit Öpik in Montgomeryshire, one of the safest seats for Whigs and Liberals since the 17th century, and Dr Evan Harris in Oxford West and Abingdon, who was possibly my favourite MP, a strong voice for a clear scientific understanding of policy, a defender of free speech, and a clear advocate for of gay rights, beaten by Nicola Blackwood, a Tory who apparently has creationist beliefs.
But they also have a great opportunity, as no government can be formed without their support. They have a choice now between supporting a government led by David Cameron, or one led by a probably David Miliband, also supported by the SDLP, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Sylvia Hermon. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that as someone who has in political allegiances has gone between the Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael that I would favour the former option. I see this as their best chance of affecting change in both policy and in the dynamics of party politics, as long as they ensure a place in cabinet rather than simply supporting the Conservatives in a confidence and supply arrangement.
The Conservatives are reluctant to move much at all on the question of electoral reform. This would be the best reason the Lib Dems would have to collapse negotiations, if they cannot secure a firm commitment on this. However, they should consider two things. The first is that a referendum proposed by a rag-tag slump coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems and a selection of regionalist parties would not be guaranteed to win. The second is that a successful and stable coalition agreement would seriously impair the Tories’ argument against proportional representation, whereas they could point to a Lab/LD/SNP/SDLP/Hermon coalition as exactly the kind of thing that would occur frequently under PR.
The change to the Tories
This leads onto the change they could affect in the party system. As referred to by Declan Harmon, Fianna Fáil eventually abandoned their core principle of opposition to coalitions. In 1989 the Progressive Democrats had had a poor election, falling from 14 to 6 seats. Its members were mostly composed of those who had a deep antipathy to the politics of Charles Haughey, who they were now supporting as Taoiseach. By doing so, they altered the presumptions everyone had about election outcomes and the formation of governments. The Tories know the importance of a stable government as a signal for the markets, and would likely not seek to collapse the arrangement over any frivolous matter. After a year of coalition, they would henceforth slowly begin to think less adamantly in favour of single-party government only.
I was talking to a friend this morning about the coalition who reminded me that they’re Tories, not conservatives. Of course there’s a difference, and there are many issues that I couldn’t trust Tory instincts on, be it Northern Ireland, their approach to families, or their commitment to gay rights (whatever about the optimism of Nick Herbert for his party and his likelihood of being a cabinet minister, there have been too many Lewises, Lardners and Strouds over the course of the election for my liking). But these tendencies would be less of a concern in coalition, and without them, the Tories would be in danger of regressing towards their
In government with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats could ensure that they follow through with their claimed commitments to civil liberties. They could force them to confront more quickly questions like biometric ID cards, the national database, and the level of CCTV coverage in Britain. On immigration, they would propose the amnesty for long-standing residents proposed by the Lib Dems, but neither they pass the stringent caps proposed by the Tories. The Tories would continue for opt-outs on social provisions of the European Union, while not being as obstinate in practice as they might otherwise be. The social conservative wing of the Tories are pushing for a cabinet position for Iain Duncan Smith in return for agreeing to any deal with the Lib Dems. Fine, so long as in the next year or so he is whipped to go through the lobbies voting in favour of some measure on gay rights.
So yes, the Liberal Democrats will suffer some initial drop in support in they enter coalition with the Tories, just as the Green Party did here after 2007, both because of their government partner and the inevitable cuts to government spending. But in the long-term, because of the change they would make to British political culture, both by normalizing c0alition politics and making electoral reform easier to pass, and putting pressure on the civil-liberties-focused wing of the Tories, I think it would be the right thing for them to do.
On Wednesday, the Cato Institute, a US libertarian think-tank, hosted a talk, “Is There a Place for Gay People in Conservatism and Conservative Politics?”, with Nick Herbert, Conservative MP and Shadow Environment Secretary, Andrew Sullivan, blogger with The Atlantic, and Maggie Gallagher, President of the National Organization for Marriage.
Though I’m fond of Sullivan’s arguments and can understand his perspective, he can seem a little angry at times, even if justifiably so. In any case, Nick Herbert’s speech (audio here) was certainly the highlight of the event, laying out a vision of the Conservative Party that would treat sexuality as a completely unexceptional in how it governs. He talked of how there could be more openly gay Conservative than Labour MPs after the upcoming general election and how allowing gay people to enter an institution such as marriage fitted in nicely to a conservative vision. He finished his speech strongly:
Of the political parties, the Green Party seemed to me to come out particularly badly at the end of the political fallout from the resignation of Willie O’Dea.
From the point at whish his resignation looked strongly possible, both the larger parties played the political game well against the Green Party. During the 1989–1992 Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats government, the junior coalition party managed to secure the scalps of Brian Lenihan, when he had misremembered details of his discussions with President Patrick Hillery in the early 1980s and of Charlie Haughey when the full details of the phone tapping scandal emerged. Had the Green Party acted quickly enough, they could have got credit for Willie O’Dea’s eventual resignation.
Fine Gael anticipated this by tabling a motion of confidence, knowing that whatever the Greens did would cause embarrassment to some members of the government. They probably correctly predicted that the Greens would indeed support Minister O’Dea, clearly tying the party to the ensuing controversy. Fine Gael had done this before, calling a motion of no confidence in the government after the poor showing by both government parties in the 2009 local elections, but this proved of little value. This time, tabling the motion of no confidence did have a negative political impact for the government.
Fianna Fáil also played the Greens well by calling the vote on the matter promptly. Had Pat Carey, the government chief whip, let that fester, the Greens could have had a chance to demand the Minister’s resignation. True, by strongly supporting Willie O’Dea, all supporters of the government lost face to extent. But even if this was not the precise calculation, the time did have the effect of weakening the Greens more than might have been the case. Their protestations after the event really amount to little in the public mind, as by that stage it was clear to all the the minister’s position was untenable.
For this to happen so soon after Déirdre de Búrca’s resignation, which showed that the Green Party were not above trying, even if unsuccessful, to use a supposedly non-political position in Europe for political gain, does further damage to the party.
Or at least, they say it was about both. First off, they defend Ben Brogan’s piece on the Telegraph site David Cameron is a Unionist, remember?, as if to say that even if that was what it was about, that would be ok. Then they say that it was about the Tories putting pressure on the UUP to support the DUP in the event of a deal on policing.
The piece claims “After all, Irish political parties will sometimes discuss politics from a nationalist view with both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and at the same time”. We do have to concede this in part. Members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have maintained informal associational ties with members of the SDLP, and all four parties did meet in 1984 at the New Ireland Forum. There have been secret service talks, from the Hume–Adams talks in the early 1990s to discussions on decommissioning in more recent times, something both governments engaged in. What we have not seen is an opposition party south of the border negotiating with both the SDLP and Sinn Féin to discuss politics from a nationalist point of view.
For equivalent reasons, I would be critical of Fianna Fáil moves to establish itself North of the border.
But even if we suppose that they discussed matters like policing, which presumably was on the agenda given the current deadlock, are Conservatives going to claim that the talks in Lord Salisbury’s residence in Hatfield House were “all about trying to bolster peace and security”?
If either of the Unionist parties do stand aside in marginal nationalist constituencies, such as Fermanagh–South Tyrone or South Belfast, will they maintain that this was not discussed at all during these talks?
That this has nothing to do with securing every possible vote in the Commons after the election to avoid the possibility of a hung parliament? I don’t think anyone really believes that.
A few weeks ago now, I read Shane Ross‘s recent book, The Bankers, which I would recommend to anyone curious as to why the banking and financial crisis was so much worse here than in most countries.
Problems arose because both government and the banks were happy with a situation with only nominal financial, and the implicit assumption that they would help each other out if needed. While the regulators were supposedly independent, Sen. Ross shows how the cosy the relationship was between them and bankers. He opens with what he dubs the bankers’ last supper in Novemer 2008, to mark the retirement of the chairman of the Financial Regulator, Brian Patterson, where many of the major figures of Irish banking gathered. The event was hosted by Pat Farrell, president of the Irish Banking Federation, who also happened to be a former Fianna Fáil general secretary. Here we had a perfect case of the culture of the time, where bankers, those were supposed to regulate them, and actors in the political process mixed freely without any presumption of conflict.
Fianna Fáil doesn’t come out well in the book. In a chapter linking the triumvirate of bankers, developers and Fianna Fáil, Ross shows how entrenched property developers were as part of the party’s establishment in recent years. In the run-up to the 2007 general election, Bertie Ahern addressed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and one of those on the guestlist for the Irish delegation was property developer Sean Dunne. Dunne has had a long-standing relationship with Fianna Fáil, and his personal assistant, Anto Kelly, was a campaign manager for former Minister and Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue.
Or the Bailey brothers. Michael Bailey was famously reported by James Gogarty in the Planning Tribunal as answering “Will we, fuck” when asked if they would get a receipt for the payments they made in 1989 to Ray Burke. Justice Feargus Flood concluded in his interim report of the Planning Tribunal in 2002 that this payment had in fact occurred. To Fianna Fáil, that made little difference. They were as welcome as ever to the party tent at the Galway races, and that year Tom Bailey took time off work to canvass for the party in Roscommon. To Brian Cowen’s credit, the party tent in Galway has since been closed.
It was, of course, because they were in power that Fianna Fáil received such support from developers, but particularly because of the tax breaks for construction, which the Department of Finance had not even properly costed. These incentives artificially extended the boom years, and according to John Fitz Gerald of the ESRI, made a hard landing more likely, which had since proved to be the case. Similarly, warnings from UCD economist Morgan Kelly were also ignored, who showed that the trend in property bubbles in every economy since 1970 would predict anything other than a soft landing. I don’t mean to be partisan here, to isolate criticism of Fianna Fáil, but this is how it was. One might wonder if Fianna Fáil were more corrupt because they were in power more, or in power more because of their underhandedness and corruption. There are instances of the same with Fine Gael, who during their short stint in government from 1994 to 1997 had no difficulty finding builders to donate to clear their loan, and AIB and Ansbacher cleared a loan of £200,000 of Dr Garret FitzGerald which he had lost on shares.
Though it is what I took most from it, this book is not fundamentally about this corruption from the political side of things, but it does show how bankers managed to have such a free hand. The political process supported a system propping up their cronies in the banks and regulators. It is not a surprising statistic, given how used we have become over the past year to such facts, but John Hurley, Governor of the Irish Central Bank till a few months ago, earned more in 2008 than Ben Bernanke, Governor of the US Federal Reserve, who still has the power to set interest rates. Though not set by the public sector, the pay of the top Irish bankers is equally worthy of scrutiny. To take as an example, Brian Goggin, former Chief Executive of Bank of Ireland was paid €4 mn in 2007 and €3 mn in 2008, high even relative to his equivalent in the more successful Lloyds TSB or Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. There is no reason to believe that the shareholders of the bank had to pay Goggin such a sum for fear that he would be snatched by a firm outside the country. Because this salary was possible with the cosy cartel of the banks supported by the taxpayer with an implicit guarantee from the government, which became real from last year, this is very much our concern.
With the government happy to see the steady trickle of revenue from stamp duty, they did little to discourage the 100% mortgages that have now left householders across the country in negative equity. We had a system of regulation that noticed none of the backdealing and switching of loans that was taking place, such that until October 2008, no bank was fined, while the Regulators found reason to fine The Irish Times and Phoenix €10,000 and €5,000 respectively. It was also a system that saw at times directors of AIB and Bank of Ireland on the board of the Central Bank.
I could go on. I’ve picked here only a selection of the facts that make it little wonder that the system went as it did. Ross does see a measure of hope because of our fortune of having Brian Lenihan, rather than one of the other members of the cabinet, as Minister for Finance. He rightly praises the departure he has made in recent appointments, such as choosing Prof. Patrick Honohan, an outsider to the old banker/regulator circles, to succeed Hurley as Governor of the Central Bank. Lenihan’s main obstacle to fiscal rectitude are his cabinet colleagues, all too eager to criticize the findings of the McCarthy Report. But Ross is strongly critical of NAMA, describing it as a bailout for the bankers.
My only minor criticism is the extent to which Ross involves himself in the analysis. As a journalist and Senator, he has been a voice in this period. While he does acknowledge (on p. 162) that he did not have the foresight to realize the perils of holding cash in Irish banks, in mentioning that our rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008 was part of the reason, as well as our bank guarantee, that we had lost favour in Europe, he does not mention his own advocacy of a No vote on that occasion. This is a minor quibble, and one of this nature is bound to occur in a commentary from someone so vocal. It is clearly well researched (and as a matter of full disclosure, I should add that I was working with Shane Ross while the finishing touches were being put on it), and stands as an entertaining, well paced and informative account of what went wrong with this sector of the Irish economy.