As predicted a month ago in Village, and following a pathetic shadow dance by the two main parties, climaxing as Village went to press with Fianna Fáil’s rejection of Fine Gael’s offer of Partnership in a government with them and a few Blueshirt-diluting independents, the former two giants of Irish politics still have little choice but to ride the tide of history and engage in negotiations to form a government – or go back to the people.
Any assessment of their policies, not to mention shared ideologies, only serves to confirm that their differences are far fewer than their common interests and that only by exaggerating the former, such as the future of Irish Water, can they mark out separate territories.
Of course, there are other obstacles to agreement that will need to be thrashed out and overcome, including the constituency concerns of deputies and rivals of both parties and the much-hyped reluctance of ordinary members, particularly in Fianna Fáil, to embrace the old enemy.
But just as the senior spokespeople and TDs of each, cynically and with straight faces, claimed over the past four seeks to be on course to lead the next government, everyone knows that the members will go with the flow and ultimately digest even the most unpalatable of outcomes. Think Charlie Haughey and the PDs, 1989.
It is not beyond the capacity of negotiators of the two parties to find the necessary compromises on the broad range of issues that can ensure a government that will survive a reasonable period and is not at the mercy of immediate collapse when FF decides, inevitably, to pull the plug.
The respective and again predictable outcome of the vote for Taoiseach on Wednesday 6th April, with support for each from just their own TDs (plus Michael Lowry for FG) – 51 for FG and 42 for FF (Ceann Comhairle excluded) confirms the fruitlessness of the engagement with most of the Independents over recent weeks, though it appears a rural few were prepared to support Fine Gael’s proposal to Fianna Fáil.
In the meantime, the Left has problems of its own making and will require a significant amount of time and political space to identify how it can progress to become a realistic alternative to the parties and independents of the Right.
Sinn Féin will be the largest opposition party of the Left but with just under 14% of the vote and 23 seats it has a long way to go before it can challenge for leadership of a future government. Labour with seven seats will go through an internally destructive selection process to replace Joan Burton before spending a long time deciding where to place itself on the political spectrum, further to the left or in coalition, sooner rather than later, with one of the larger parties or whatever emerges from them.
With an eye to the more vibrant Social Democrats and a deep underlying hostility to Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin, which was magnified over recent years, a new Labour leader has to find potential allies if it is to offer anything new over the coming period.
Similarly, those in the People Before Profit/Anti Austerity Alliance have to find a path that leads to the viable and concrete political change to which they aspire but which also requires a fresh willingness to agree and compromise with others on the Left.
The Right to Change campaign achieved a certain degree of cohesion around a broad policy platform but it was clear there was reluctance in individual constituencies to cede ground to political rivals.
Nevertheless, if you put all these components together, along with a significant number of progressive independents, the potential exists for the Left to grow in tandem with a broad swathe of non-party activists, greens, NGOs, community organisations and trade unions seeking fundamental change.
As the day-to-day crisis for many ordinary people continues and intensifies, in health, education, housing and through precarious work, youth unemployment and emigration, the objective conditions for a more coherent Left will become more obvious. But serious and sensible people must recognise them.
By Frank Connolly