After the General Election the political vista remains hazy. A minority Government led by Fine Gael but backed by Fianna Fáil looks the most likely after Fianna Fáil’s churlish rebuttal of Fine Gael’s Partnership Proposal. Before the election, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil said they refused to go into coalition with one another. Sinn Féin is refusing to go into coalition with anyone, and Fianna Fáil seems to be serious about it. Radical-left groups such as the AAA/ PBP despite proclaiming to represent the people couldn’t convince many of them to join their cause. These are the fundaments of the situation.
A week before the General Election, Fine Gael ran an ad in The Sunday Times that stated Ireland was the envy of Europe. This depiction of Ireland and its reflection of Fine Gael will undoubtedly have jarred with who was vulnerable or angry at the incompetence, iniquity and misconduct of the outgoing government. During the general election campaign the Labour party leader Joan Burton demonstrated all the bluster we expect from Irish politicians on the cusp of demise. “The worst mistake we could make now”, she told her party conference in January, “is to squander our hard-earned progress by gambling on uncertainty”. She inferred from this that the people would return Labour to Government. The efforts by Labour to appeal to its voter base failed, in large part because people were jaded being lied to. A lot of people voted for Independents because of discontentment with the mainstream political parties but this vote was largely cast without expectation that the agenda of the Independent would ever be enshrined in any government policy. Interestingly, perhaps dangerously, in fact low expectations of the implications of these protest votes may be confounded.
Irish politicians lie brazenly with no apology. It is the cynicism that this has generated that underpins the current deadlock. The lack of integrity has become so pervasive that it verges on a lack of legitimacy.
A lot of people may simply just sigh at these remarks but that is the problem. In Ireland we have become so accustomed to political corruption and contempt that it doesn’t strike us as an issue, less still one we can do something about.
Before the 2011 election Fianna Fáil was keen to insist that it “made all the difficult decisions”, despite the fact it had bankrupted the country. Dishonesty shines through even when our politicians have cornered the market in attempting to be honest: Lucinda Creighton voted against the Protection Of Life During Pregnancy Bill – an issue of conscience. What was extraordinary was that she didn’t explain why she didn’t vote with her conscience on a range of other poltical issues, many of which she felt strongly enough about to form a new political party, the earth-bound Renua party.
There have been some attempts to resolve this: an elected Ceann Comhairle for example will tend to work against government (or even Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil) hegemony, albeit that it would have been more encouraging had the incumbent come from outside the ranks of the big parties. Eoghan Murphy proposed a series of “radical” reforms to the whip, which would include the ostensibly rather unradical freedom of TDs to question the leaders of their own parties.
Partisan jealousies have undermined many efforts at progressive legislation. Last year the Social Democrats proposed to create an Anti-Corruption Agency based on an Australian model. It was voted down by the coalition parties.
The Parliamentary structures in Ireland don’t allow independent and opposition party TDs to influence policy in a meaningful way. In the US Senate Committees are structured in such a way that independently minded politicians can influence policy.
Quite recently the OECD also revealed that Ireland had one of the least effective Parliaments in Europe. On the budgetary process Ireland ranks lowest. In the UK, politicians voting against the party whip are only rarely expelled from the party.
If anything the internal ethos of Irish political parties limits reform more than the internal structures of out political system.
In many other countries, it is possible for politicians in the same political party to differ greatly from each other on key issues. In the Conservative party in Britain the views of David Cameron would differ greatly from those of Eurosceptic Daniel Hannan. Likewise In the UK Labour Party, the views of Trotskyite Jeremy Corbyn are radically different from Blairite Liz Kendall’s.
In the US, Democrats and Republicans from the same parties disagree with each other on a host of issues: think Trump and Romney. In Germany it is an offence to interfere with the conscientious decision of a member of Parliament.
In Ireland it’s almost impossible to point to any mavericks within the mainstream political parties, rather the mockable pathology is to defend everything the ruling party does as if it were gospel.
The Irish political system is broken. We are facing the prospect of a second election or a coalition of parties which defied their democratic mandate by going into coalition with a party they said they would not go into coalition with.
When individual TDs in coalition Governments can’t be trusted to stand up for an ideology, a mandate or even their constituents a minority Government would probably be the best option. It will be more difficult to get legislation passed, but at the moment there is virtually no oversight, almost all legislation that is proposed by the Government is passed. The second house of Parliament the Seanad is only capable of delaying legislation not repealing it; Seanad reform looks unlikely. In the US legislation has to be passed through three houses before it can be approved.
A minority Government would not guarantee support for every piece of legislation that the ruling parties propose. But any stringent analysis suggest that is no bad thing.
The only case for optimism is the possibility of the creation of a left and right divide in Irish Politics. The Lanigan’s ball of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil allowed whichever party was in opposition, as a challenge, however implausible, to the status quo.
In the last election Sinn Féin did not prove to be very transfer-friendly and it is not likely that it will be in a position to lead in the foreseeable future. However, a Left comprising the Social Democrats, Labour, the Green Party, radical-left groups and Independents could help to fill this void.
If the new government is heavy with independents promoting a rural-renewal agenda it is possible that a new opposition party may pursue a clear internationalist and ideological, cosmopolitan and pro-urban agenda.
Meanwhile, if both our tainted and ideology-free dinosaur parties were finally exposed as the symbiotic essential components of the status quo there would be space for this or, better still, for a new opposition force or party.
By Robert Dunne