I’m disappointed with the result of the referendum on Seanad abolition. There’s no point now in detailing once more why I thought this would have been a good idea and a worthy reform of our political system. The result was not what the polls predicted, and while polling firms might have found it difficult to estimate likely voters, there also was a definite swing against us. With this short time to consider the result, I think the blame for that most likely rests with the Taoiseach and his closest advisors. When he announced this in 2009, I thought (or hoped) it was a sign that he was truly embracing an element of radical and substantial political reform. Yet during this campaign, he did not show the confidence to explain and defend it to voters. I know of people who were leaning in favour of abolition but who voted against because they did not believe he should be rewarded and credited with such a change if he would not stand up for it. If it were a long-held party policy, or an initiative of another minister, it would have been fair enough to have delegated it to the director of elections, as usually occurs at referendums. But he was the one who reintroduced this to the political conversation in 2009. As the leader of our government, Enda Kenny should have explained clearly and plainly the merit he saw in this.
Party members were let down by this. A defeat in a poll is never a pleasant experience, and this is one that could have been avoided. The internal conversation and debates should have started long before the summer. And party members should have been involved in formulating our arguments. There is a time and a place for focus groups, but the political instincts of motivated and interested members should be respected and sought. We ran with poor campaign messages. The largest party in the country could never have credibility talking of the benefits of fewer politicians. The discussion of cost does have a place, but it should not have been the starting point. Not to mention some embarrassing stunts, which are probably all right as moments of levity during a campaign, but not when they become key pieces of it. We needed a wide-ranging and targeted campaign, one that showed from the start that it was a position of substance and principle, that stood up to scrutiny, based on solid research.
Fine Gael needs to learn from this. We didn’t learn from the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries; here we are two years later with practically an identical margin against. Reform that requires constitutional amendment needs to be framed in a way that appreciates and addresses the legitimate suspicion the public have when the executive seeks to alter the arrangements in the constitution.
In the RDS count centre this morning, a non-aligned campaigner said to myself and a member of a different party that for people like us, it was a tribal matter. It wasn’t that for me. Had Fianna Fáil or any other party proposed this, and Fine Gael been against, I would still have publicly supported this. I am not right now disappointed for Fine Gael that we as a party have suffered a defeat in a poll. I am disappointed in Fine Gael, and I things change have to change.
And to those who opposed abolition, well done on a well fought campaign.
All we can determine from yesterday’s result is that the voters wanted to keep a second house. We should now think carefully and critically about how its 60 members should be selected and what their role should be.
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.
We’re awaiting this morning the Programme for Government, which will be some sort of compromise between the manifesto of Fine Gael and Labour. Given the ratio of seats of 76 to 37 (2.05:1), the balance will be in Fine Gael’s favour, but there are elements of Labour’s manifesto I like, and not just on social issues. In their section on taxation, Labour write, “Labour accepts that it will be necessary to introduce a site value charge, in order to prevent higher taxes on work”. Fine Gael have instead proposed a “site sale profits tax”, levied on the profit made from the site value on the sale of a residence. As a reliable and sustainable form of taxation, I find a site value tax most attractive, possibly the least worst form of any taxation, and it is possibly too the only economic measure proposed by Labour I would certainly endorse. But I only fully appreciated the problems with own proposal last Thursday, as I was doing a last-minute flyer drop off Leeson St the day before the election. I met an elderly couple who felt it wrong that they would particularly be hit because they wished to trade down on their retirement.
A site value or land value tax is economically attractive because it does not disincentivize further investment in one’s property. And other than occasional changes to the amount because of improvements in amenities like a new Luas line, it is a fairly steady source of revenue. A transaction tax, whether it be stamp duty or sales profit tax, would be dependent on vagaries of the market.
Labour did, however, acknowledge that because there would need to be a preliminary survey of property, it couldn’t be introduced till 2014. There should also be relief for those who have recently paid high levels of stamp duty. If we do get a pledge on such a tax in the Programme, and if that’s the timescale we get, I will be pleased, particularly so if over time more is raised through a land tax and progressively less through taxing income.
Political reform was an issue in this election, unusual in any case, and perhaps surprising given the state of the economy. But I think people realized that part of the reason the country found itself in the position it did was because of poor political institutions which came inordinate power to the executive and the lack of check on its decisions. All parties proposed changes on political reform, and as the two parties likely to form the government, Fine Gael and Labour, got scores of 74 and 68, the two highest scores, from the Political Reform Scorecard, there is no excuse not to expect changes here.
Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot
Already we’ve names mentioned for the position of Ceann Comhairle, as something to be divided in the spoils of government. But in the New Politics document, Fine Gael have called for the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by secret ballot by all TDs, as is the case with the Speaker of the House of Commons in Westminster. It can’t be done straight away, as the first order of business in a new Dáil is the election of Ceann Comhairle. But Enda Kenny could propose someone while declaring that he intended to appoint them as a Minister of State, someone who would be credible as an interim Ceann Comhairle. Within the first month, the standing orders could be changed, the interim Ceann Comhairle would step down, to be replaced by secret ballot.
A role for all TDs
A few times on Saturday and Sunday, I heard radio commentators ask Independent TDs what the point was of them in the Dáil if they would not hold balance of power. A Dáil election forms the legislature, which has a function in its own right, apart from being a sort of electoral college to elect the executive. Backbenchers, whether government or opposition, should have more power and part of this means being able to propose motions or legislation in private members’ time and reasonably expect that it will be open for a free vote of the Dáil. There are many issues, like stag hunting, which shouldn’t be considered a matter of a confidence vote but a free vote of all members.
In Britain, it is an embarrassment, but not the end of the world, if a government loses a vote it has proposed. Given the majority this government has, and the fact that there will inevitably be backbenchers unhappy with certain government proposals, this could be an opportunity to relax the party whip system, so that it wouldn’t be seen to be such a big deal if they were vote against. In Britain, when they had a vote last year on the introduction of deferred payments for college fees, there were members of both government parties who voted against or abstained.
Fewer but stronger committees
There have also been proposals to strengthen the committee structure, to give it greater powers of scrutiny over legislation and over appointments to state boards. Though Fine Gael intends to give permanent Constitutional recognition to certain committees, the structures could be put in place before such a referendum. The number of committees could be reduced and then strengthened in their power. A distribution of chairs by a d’Hondt or rotational system would reflect the diversity within the Dáil. It is fair that the positions in executive, at cabinet or junior rank, to be composed only of those who have formed the government, but that isn’t undermined by sharing this in the legislature. In the US House of Representatives, the current Chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy is the radical Republican presidential hopeful, Ron Paul, who would like to shut down the Federal Reserve, something that made Majority Leader John Boehner wary of his appointment. Imagine if Shane Ross or Joe Higgins were to chair our own Banking and Financial Regulation Committee.
There were many other proposals on political reform proposed by the two incoming government parties, these are just a few of them that have most relevance to the Dáil itself which could be started straight away.
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.
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.
I was clear in my support for Richard Bruton when he challenged Enda Kenny for the leadership of the party. But whatever my opinion of his capabilities, for him and the others on his side on the front bench to challenge the party leader without much planning or seemingly any communication with backbench TDs was foolhardy. They easily left themselves open to be bested by the workings of Enda, Phil Hogan, Paul Kehoe and others, and from this perspective, Enda Kenny deservedly came out ahead on the day.
Enda Kenny has come out stronger after the heave, as he showed himself to have Machiavellian capabilities that had not before been attributed to him. Whatever else, no longer will there be a perception of mutterings and the possibility of a heave overshadowing his leadership in the run-up to the election. Of course many of those leading the challenge said criticized Kenny in ways that might seem awkward now, but that is no more than could be expected in the heat of an election contest.
The new front bench is promising. Given the circumstances of the challenge, it was to be expected that Richard Bruton would not return to Finance, but he will be a very capable and experienced voice in Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, a position he held as a Minister during the Rainbow Government. Equally, Michael Noonan in Finance will be a strong performer, hard on the facts, and he won’t hold back any punches. Seán Barrett, Minister for Defence and the Marine, will be an asset in Foreign Affairs, and is one of our older heavyweights.
At the outset, I wrote that it was important that whatever the result of the challenge, it was important that the new front bench wouldn’t foment any divisions by being composed primarily of one camp or another. Previous party leaders have made that mistake, including Noonan, who left Enda Kenny off the front bench after beating him in the contest to succeed John Bruton. Enda has wisely avoided such a clear statement, while using it as an opportunity to evaluate the performance of all of the front bench to date. While we will wait till the autumn to see how the front bench performs in each of their portfolios, this has gone well. With Billy Timmins having made clear his intentions to step aside, I was glad to see my other constituency TD Andrew Doyle get a position. The one surprise, though it had been speculated on, is James Reilly’s promotion to Deputy Leader. I would have felt Phil Hogan a more natural choice for that position.
|Deputy Leader and Health||James Reilly|
|Enterprise, Jobs and Economic Planning||Richard Bruton|
|Foreign Affairs||Sean Barrett|
|Communications and Natural Resources||Leo Varadkar|
|Environment, Heritage and Local Government||Phil Hogan|
|Justice and Law Reform||Alan Shatter|
|Education and Skills||Fergus O’Dowd|
|Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs||Frank Feighan|
|Agriculture, Fisheries and Food||Andrew Doyle|
|Social Protection||Michael Ring|
|Tourism, Culture and Sport||Jimmy Deenihan|
|Innovation and Research||Deirdre Clune|
|Small Business||John Perry|
|Older Citizens||Catherine Byrne|
|Chief Whip||Paul Kehoe|
If it wasn’t for the Fine Gael leadership challenge, few would even have paid much notice to today’s motion of confidence in Brian Cowen, which was going to pass in his favour one way or other, and certainly be next week, no one would have remembered anything bar perhaps the odd witty comment. This is why, despite the good story it makes, it’s not actually that much of an issue that Richard Bruton’s challenge to Enda Kenny has this unfortunate element of timing. What matters is that between now and the election, the public is periodically reminded of the findings of the Honohan and the Regling-Watson reports, and why Fianna Fáil has lost the moral authority to be re-elected and claim to be able to manage the economy.
I also don’t really get this obsession with persistent confidence motions, with the withdrawal of pairings, in some vain hope that a random Fianna Fáil backbencher will fail to go through the government lobbies. The government has far lost the effective support of only Joe Behan and Finian McGrath. Even those who have publicly claimed a lack of confidence in Brian Cowen like John McGuinness, and those who have resigned the government whip, like McDaid, Scanlon and Devins, consistently go through the lobbies to back the government. Enda Kenny tried the same stunt after the local and European elections, in an attempt to find faults in government cohesion, which resulted in greater unity and common purpose between the two government parties. If the government really looks like it could fall, if it clearly loses support of enough of those independents, then go ahead and test confidence.
This might also have been what forced Kenny’s hand in asking for Richard Bruton’s resignation. As he explained yesterday, he didn’t feel he could question the confidence in Cowen while he didn’t himself have confidence in the man sitting next to him. Enda Kenny’s decision in this regard made this a plain choice between Fine Gael led by Enda Kenny but without Bruton or those Ivan Yates yesterday on The Frontline described as the best and the brightest on the front bench, and Fine Gael led by Richard Bruton. If that’s the choice, there’s only one option.
Does Fine Gael need a change in leadership to hope to lead the next government? No, but it might still be a good idea.
Whether or not Richard Bruton decides to challenge Enda Kenny’s leadership of the party at the parliamentary party, Fine Gael has the policies at hand to convince people that we should lead government. We will win based on policies, such as NewEra, which should be sold for what it is, a plan to improve our competitiveness by introducing a business orientation to the provision of services like broadband, water and energy, or NewPolitics, which will reduce the scale of our government institutions while increasing accountability and accessibility. We should convince people on the basis of the positions we have taken over the years, whether in opposing elements of social partnership like benchmarking, or in the past two years, taking a case-by-case rather than a populist approach to government actions. Here Fine Gael should be seen favourably against Labour. Fine Gael supported the guarantee of bank deposits, but while opposing that bailout of bondholders. Fine Gael supported the Croke Park deal with the trade union leaders, something Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party couldn’t take a stand on until Jack O’Connor had given the word that it had SIPTU support.
As I have written before, Enda Kenny has been a very good leader in electoral terms. At the 2002 general, when the party fell to 31 seats, some commentators spoke of a continual demise in the party’s fortunes. Within two years of Kenny’s leadership, the party had bested Fianna Fáil for the first time, beating them at the European elections in 2004. He led the party to 51 seats in 2007 and then Fine Gael became the largest party at a local level in 2009. This is an incredible record for his eight years of leadership to date.
But even after all that, Enda Kenny might not be the best man to lead the party into the next election. We are facing a contest primarily between Fine Gael and Labour, and Labour have gained ground. Even if we can win some of this back, to find ourselves ahead of Labour again, the ratio in seats between the two parties after the next election will be crucial. In ways, by their commitment to many of the elements of social partnership through their trade union links, Labour is simply proposing more of the same. It is important for the country that Fine Gael has a very clear advantage over Labour.
It is unfortunate to say it, but despite his good work internally, in bringing many good candidates into the party and forward to electoral success, Enda Kenny is not popular nationally, and particularly in Dublin. He is not disliked, many simply do not see him as an alternative Taoiseach. We have to be realistic and wonder how much of the fortune the party has had in the polls was due to our own people and policies, and how much was because we were seen as the most likely alternative to Fianna Fáil.
This is not just about Friday’s Irish Times/MRBI poll, or the last Sunday Times/Red C poll, which showed the party stagnating in support. There have been internal mutterings about Kenny’s leadership for a while, reflecting large sections of the general public. These rose to prominence after the resignation of George Lee, but no one in the parliamentary party wanted to give him credit for deciding the fate of the party leader.
I do believe the party would be stronger nationally led by Richard Bruton, provided the parliamentary party gets behind him fully were he to succeed Enda Kenny. He does command confidence and respect, of a sort which the Irish people now desire. This should not be seen as a sign of internal division and rancour, as the party has successfully avoided since 2002, but rather as our best strategic decision when facing one of the most important elections for the country in recent decades. In all likelihood that before the next election, there will be a three-way leadership debate. Richard Bruton would be seen as a fresh face, and his command of economics would be reassuring in that event. The parliamentary party have to face this action head on, and not let it linger. Even if Enda Kenny were to come out of this continuing as leader, it would put the matter publicly behind the party.
One way or other, this needs to be resolved this week, resolved decisively and put to rest. And most importantly, we can’t let this lead to continuing divisions in the front bench into different camps after this week.