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.
Derwin Brennan last week criticized the description of politics in terms of left and right, celebrating the centrism of Clinton Democrats and New Labour, as well as David Cameron’s compassionate conservatism (a term used before him by George W. Bush). But even if we can concede that the words themselves are limiting, we shouldn’t fear a debate along these lines. Already we are seeing in the support of parties that the divisions in Irish political are shifting more to a left–right division, and this will likely be accentuated in the coming general elections, and this will allow the public to understand more easily how different parties frame their understanding of political difference.
One of the interesting aspects of the reactions to the credit crunch and subsequent recession worldwide was how, broadly speaking, those on either side of the political divide framed a narrative that vindicated their own outlook. Those who had long spoken against the excesses of the market focused on the excesses of the capitalist system, whereas those who saw a problem with unwieldy government intervention focused on the overburdening public deficit and how the history of bailouts had eliminated the risks that should have been part of a capitalist system.
It is true that the use of the terms left and right can be quite reductive. People can be usually sure what is meant by left-wing, but if someone is described as right-wing, it is not as easy to tell where they stand on a range of issues. The crucial division is really whether one believes problems are best served by government or by individuals. It is quite possible to hold that because of the dispersed nature of information throughout society, individuals cooperating freely can handle economic decisions better than government, while respecting people’s decisions in their private lives, allowing all couples celebrate their relationships equally, and being suspicious of clerical influence on politics. Indeed, many liberals would in fact see this as naturally coherent.
The crisis in Ireland has awakened the realization the size of government is a serious question for debate. Our budgetary problem occurred because we did not properly realize that there are choices to be made in politics. The boom years have been characterized as high-point of capitalism, in part because of the stated ideology of some of those in power. But despite the supposed economic liberalism of Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney, many elements of what happened during their period in government made a mockery of capitalism. Whether it was favours granted to public sector unions through social partnership, or the great offenders in semi-state inefficiency and waste of FÁS and the HSE (incentally, in Mary Harney’s two departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and then Health and Children), or the aim of taking some people out of the tax net entirely, policy suffered from an inconsistent approach to government income and spending.
The debate on the role of government is important. We should not be fooled by vague centrism that we can avoid the choice between low taxes on the one hand and government provision of services on the other. The avoidance of this question led many to assume that taxes could be lowered while spending increased indefinitely. There are points along a scale where this effect is clear, such as the increase in revenue when capital gains tax was halved in 1998. But with spending increasing, the government found itself trapped by its commitments and then found that it could rely on a particular industry. It ignored the model of a free market, which would remain neutral between different industries, and supported the property bubble through incentives such as mortgage interest relief. Neither side of the divide on the political economy could have supported such a system; while one would have argued for lower government spending, the other would have argued for higher taxes. Either one of these would have been less resistant to boom and bust.
Yes, when we consider political positioning of parties, we mustn’t assume that there is a single axis on which we can usefully describe them. And parties do change their positioning over time. But if we decide to move away from thinking in ideological terms, we miss some of the important lessons of the last three years.
Over the past two Mondays, Sam Smyth presented a two-hour program on the Progressive Democrats. It was fine to watch and reminisce, but it was lacking in crucial areas. The narrative of the program was too much driven by the choice quotes from some of those interviewed. These were certainly interesting to hear, Charlie McCreevy never failed to amuse and we saw how little love there was lost between Michael McDowell and Liz O’Donnell, from his account of her dislike for constituency meetings to her description of his proposed party constitution as Mugabesque. But there was a little more to the party than that.
Timing was the biggest problem. The first hour covered the years 1985 to 2002, the second hour the years 2002 to 2008. Even given the time for the revelations of Operation Teatime, the discussions on a merger between Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats that took place in 2004, there wasn’t a good reason when assessing the party as a whole to give such disproportionate time to the period when Michael McDowell when at his strongest point within the party. Sam Smyth is, of course, quite good friends with both McDowell brothers, Moore and Michael. There were times when it seemed that not a week went without either one or the other as a guest on the Sunday Supplement. One of the things that drew me to the party was how often I found myself in agreement with McDowell so often, and his naming of Adams, McGuinness and Ferris as members of the Provisional Army Council on the program.
But the party was much more than that, and even when I joined I was attracted to the party’s history and the spirit of 1985. Maybe there should have been a third hour. The scene in the 1980s should have been set. The commentary merely stated that Des O’Malley was expelled for disagreements with Charles Haughey. Would it have hurt to have mentioned the nature of these disagreements, to have spent a few minutes on the heaves against Haughey during the 1980s? To have given footage of the New Ireland Forum report in 1984, which Des O’Malley supported along with Fine Gael, Labour and the SDLP? And what sort of documentary on the PDs could neglect O’Malley standing by the republic in 1985, when he spoke out in the Dáil against the sectarianism in Fianna Fáil and their opposition to the government’s bill on contraception, which led him to be expelled from Fianna Fáil for “conduct unbecoming”. More could have been made on the state of Irish politics at the time, with high rates of taxation and public spending, and why it was that Michael McDowell saw fit to write to Des on the night he was expelled to discuss forming a part.
Then on the party’s first term in government, the program focused on questions like why Mary Harney didn’t get a seat at the cabinet rather than what she was noted for at the time, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the elimination of Dublin’s smog as Junior Minister for the Environment.
The program did not capture the party’s power and influence in that first period of government, that caused so much resentment in Fianna Fáil. During the 1990 presidential election, after Brian Lenihan, on “mature recollection”, changed his story of his phone calls to the Áras in 1982, the Progressive Democrats insisted that he be dismissed as Tánaiste. Michael McDowell was soon after to attack Pádraig Flynn on RTÉ Radio when he attempted to criticize Mary Robinson’s conduct during the campaign “as a wife and as a mother”, remarks which ultimately swung the campaign in Robinson’s favour. The party managed to veto Jim McDaid’s appointment as Minister for Defence in 1991, and then brought down Haughey in 1992 when Sean Doherty revealed him to be responsible for tapping the phones of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold. The chronology as shown was also a little off; Reynolds’ “temporary little arrangement” remark dates from 1989, not 1992, as it seemed from how it was portrayed.
I don’t mean here to write a full account of the role the Progressive Democrats played in Irish politics, just to highlight a few points where this program was lacking, particularly in the earlier years. A shame, because there is a story there, which will probably not be documented again for a while after this attempt. There could also have been a better analysis of the reasons for its ultimate demise and fall in popularity, even as its policy outlook was adopted as the mainstream. And a nice coda would have been a mention of the success of former Progressive Democrats at the 2009 local elections. The party deserves an account played for more than just the laughs and the sensationalism of some of the interview clips.
Edit: Line on “mature recollection” corrected.
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.
Recently with talk of the need for political reform in Ireland, the low female representation in the Dáil has been raised. Currently, only 23 of the 166 in the Dáil are women, a mere 13.9%. These include eight from Fianna Fáil, five from Fine Gael, seven from Labour, one Green and two Independents. Last October, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights delivered a report on the issue, to determine the causes for Ireland’s relative decline in women’s participation in parliamentary politics. In 1990 we had been ranked 37th in the world. Ireland stood mostly still and is now ranked 85th in the world. Extracting the 27 EU countries below, Ireland ranks 23rd, ahead of Cyprus, Romania, Hungary and Malta.
It is true of course that the biological differences between men and women should mean that we shouldn’t expect that in any sphere of life that there would be an even number. But that doesn’t explain the disparity between Ireland and other countries.
I am hesitant to favour gender quotas, as they would impose restrictions either on parties or voters, as well as risking the impression that those women elected might not have got the job without the quota. Successfully elected politicians such as Lucinda Creighton (FG), Mary O’Rourke (FF) and Joanna Tuffy (Lab) are on record in opposition to quotas, as they presumably did not find it an insurmountable obstacle. But, of course, the few examples of women who have succeeded does not lessen the fact that the numbers are still quite low. A legal requirement on parties to have a certain number of female candidates would make life impossible for such single-issue parties as the Fathers’ Rights-Responsibility Party to be recognized, or conversely, a niche party focused on women’s issues. That I don’t think that such parties are the best way of implementing policy change is not the point.
At the very least, this poor showing is something to be aware of in any changes. For example, it could be one of reasons to favour larger constituencies which according to many studies tend to increase the representation of women. Or if a citizens’ assembly were to propose a significant change, such as moving to a mixed member system, as they use in Germany, the top-up mechanism could be configured to strengthen the representation of women.
Aside from any legislative change, parties should make an effort, if they need to, to encourage women candidates. I spoke last Wednesday to a former Conservative candidate who said that constituency organizations were there given free choice from a panel of three men and three women. We should consider what it is about Irish political culture that makes it unattractive for women. Of course, there are some parties that didn’t need to. In three successive elections, the Progressive Democrats, the first parliamentary party in Ireland with a women as leader, had equal representation, with two of four in 1997, four of eight in 2002 and one of two in 2007, without any formal mechanism for the promotion of women.
Over the weekend, I attended the Fine Gael National Conference in Killarney, where I had a great time. It was my first Conference with the party, and great to get to know people. I was also genuinely impressed with the party. Having been to party conferences before, and followed politics in general long enough, I know that all too often these such occasions are simply about rallying the troops and fomenting the common identity between members, in the case of those in opposition, talking in vague terms about how things could change for the better, but without substance.
It was during the seminar on the New Politics that it became clear that the party really is serious about reforming the political system. This started with Enda Kenny’s announcement last year that he planned to put a referendum to the people on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. Last week, The Irish Times published draft details of proposals of the parliamentary party on Constitutional reforms, with details such as list seats, a reform of the term of the president, and greater powers for certain Dáil committees. What became clear as Phil Hogan made his presentation to the Conference was that the real proposal was not these proposals as such, but the idea that something needs to be done. It looks likely that this will be organized by way of a citizens’ assembly, with time to engage with whatever proposals, to react to them and propose any relevant changes before they are put to the people. This received a very positive response from Prof. David Farrell of the UCD Department of Politics, and it is something that many commentators have called for. This is the beginning of a discussion that people really do want.
There were other areas too. There’s FairCare, a radical overhaul of the medical sector. While Mary Harney’s reforms did help in reducing, by removing private beds from public hospitals and through the National Treatment Purchase Fund, they did not change the fundamental nature of the provision of health care. Fine Gael’s proposals would manage to eliminate on the broad scale the division between public and private patients while maintaining a competitive private health insurance system.
There are the New Era proposals for job creation, with a plan to provide for 105,000 new jobs in certain key areas such as broadband and energy. To be honest, this is one area that it is very difficult to anticipate what could be done this far out, as the macroeconomic demands of the country after the election will determine a lot. But of more immediate relevance were the policies developed by Leo Varadkar to tackle unemployment at the lowest margins, to make it more attractive to keep employees working part-time than to dismiss them. There are some perverse incentives at this level, and we need to make a clear commitment that welfare policies should be such that no one should ever find themselves in a position where they would have less money if they started work.
What I encouraged me overall was a feeling of hope, not just from a partisan level that we will lead the next government with a strong mandate. On the principle of throwing the rascals out, at the next election more than any previously, we could presume to run on that basis. It would be all to easy to have spent time asserting a simple valence point, that we could do a better job than Fianna Fáil.
But this hope was a feeling of optimism about the country, what we could do in government. It was not about the vague principle of a need for change or a new sort of politics, but something that was far more clearly outlined than we might expect from an opposition party before an election itself. While Fianna Fáil are now doing what they can to salvage the economy and move the books to a sounder state, it will take a party with a fresh approach and focus to bring forward real change.
I had to smile to see a few familiar faces, that I was not the only former Progressive Democrat in Killarney. My old party emerged during the 1980s, as an optimistic force with a radical approach to all aspects of politics, including major Constitutional reform. Of course, it never had the opportunity to play a role as the leading party in government. In Fine Gael, facing the next election in a time with a need for renewal, I now feel, much more than I did before the weekend, that we have a force for meaningful change.