by Frank Schnittger
Sat Apr 4th, 2020 at 12:39:34 PM EST
Forming a government
Sir, - There is something wrong with a political culture where more parties want to be in opposition rather than government.
Fine Gael initially responded to its election defeat by saying it would go into opposition.
Sinn Féin started off by saying that it wanted to enter government but quickly settled back into an opposition role when it was clear it didn't actually have the numbers to lead a government.
The Labour Party decided to go into opposition.
The Greens ruled themselves out by setting conditions they knew no one else would agree to.
The hard-left parties never showed any interest in entering a government unless it was formed entirely on the basis of their policies. Most Independents are keeping quiet.
All seem to be aware that the electorate has a habit of punishing any party in government regardless of how well or badly they perform in office.
So does this tell us that we are a nation of complainers rather than doers?
That we elect politicians who can emote our frustrations but who can't actually get anything done?
Only Fianna Fáil seems interested in being in government, but is that because this is Micheál Martin's last shot at being taoiseach?
Many of his backbenchers seem deeply ambivalent about the prospect.
Are we a nation of hurlers on the ditch? - Yours, etc,
Once again, the Irish Times has chosen to publish one of my less controversial letters.
No one was in any great hurry to form a government after the electorate threw up a result giving three parties a roughly equal share of the votes and seats - three parties who had all pledged not to coalesce with each other. And then the Covid-19 crisis intervened to move the focus elsewhere.
The electorate has also, in recent elections, severely punished any party which entered government as a junior partner: - The Progressive Democrats were destroyed, the Labour party went from 37 to 6 seats now, and the Greens were almost destroyed before their recent recovery to 12 seats. For some reason the junior partner in government gets all the blame for unpopular decisions made and none of the credit for any achievements in office.
But there is also a deeper problem. For whatever reason there always seem to be far more barstool politicians with solutions for every problem under the sun, than there are people prepared to do the hard graft of developing the expertise for and the consensus behind any proposal to make it happen. Many of the independent TDs, for example, are excellent at expressing the frustrations and grievances of their constituents, but few have any experience of managing anything bigger than a pub. Very few have excelled in academia, business or the professions, and most don't have any vision greater than the immediate interests of their support base.
Perhaps it was ever thus, of course, but right now it has created a peculiar vacuum at the heart of our political system. Fine Gael were resoundingly rejected at the polls - losing 15 seats from 50 to 35. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar acknowledged the scale of the defeat and said his party would go into opposition. Yet there he is, two months after the election, still in place at the head of a government some of whose members no longer have seats in the Dáil, and leading the national response to the Covid-19 crisis.
And by almost all accounts he is doing a great job - at least in comparison to our near neighbours in the UK and parts of Europe - closing down schools and businesses relatively early, ramping up health services capacity, compensating workers and businesses forced to close, and helping to generate a national consensus (and almost 100% voluntary compliance) around new social distancing, staying at home, and personal hygiene rules.
So much so, that the recent Red C Poll had support for various government responses to the crisis at around 90% and support for Fine Gael up 13% on their general election performance to 34% now, with Sinn Féin up 3%, Fianna Fail down 4%, and with independents and smaller parties the big losers.
But that still leaves us with a government to form that can lead us past the immediate crisis and on the long and difficult road to recovery afterwards. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael seem on the verge of agreeing a common policy platform, but they still need the support of smaller parties and independents to gain an overall majority. And while both claim to be working in the national interest to try and form a government, the incentives, for Fine Gael, at least, could not be more perverse.
Why should Fine Gael help to form a government which will see their party lose over half their ministerial positions - including, in all probability, the role of taoiseach - and force them to compromise and share power with their arch rivals to the chagrin and dismay of most of their supporters? And if historical precedent is anything to go by, they will be destroyed at the next election as the junior partner in a government making some tough decisions in the wake of the crisis. If the electorate said anything at the last election in February, it was that they wanted Fine Gael out of office. So surely the responsibility for forming a government rests with all the other parties?
Hence the rationale for my letter to the editor. It is quite clear that a plurality of the electorate wanted Sinn Féin in office, and yet all the other parties refuse to work with Sinn Féin for a variety of mostly self-interest reasons - chiefly the fear of being punished by the electorate at the next election. Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, in an article I could have penned for her, makes the case that the sole rationale for a Fianna Fail and Fine Gael led coalition is to keep Sinn Féin out of power. She has a point, and the 25% of the electorate who voted Sinn Féin will be very angry at their party's exclusion from government.
So if I were an adviser to Fine Gael (which I am not!), I would counsel a policy of what Churchill called "masterly inactivity" on the government formation front. Fine Gael has the valid excuse that almost all its energies are being focused on addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The longer this goes on, and the longer they are seen as managing the crisis well, the greater will become the clamour for a second general election and a chance for redemption at the polls.
Constitutionally there is no such thing as a "caretaker" government in Ireland. The taoiseach remains the taoiseach until a successor is elected by a majority of the Dáil, and his ministers remain in office even if they lost their seats at the election. Legal opinion is divided as to whether any new legislation can be enacted before a new taoiseach is elected and completes the composition of the Senate by nominating 11 senators, but there is no urgent legislation currently stuck in the parliamentary process in any case.
The failure of the Dáil to agree on anyone else for the office of taoiseach is hardly the fault of Fine Gael. It is not their job to propose anyone but their own leader for the office. If the opposition parties can't get their act together and form a government even with 125 seats out of the 160 seat Dáil, that is hardly the fault of Fine Gael who campaigned for and lost their bid to remain in office. They can now sit back and watch the opposition squirm as they are forced to take some responsibility for forming a government themselves.
But as I said, there are too many "hurlers of the ditch" in Irish society and politics. People who shout and scream at others to do their bidding but don't have the balls or ability to do it themselves. It's time their bluff was called. If they can't do it now, the Irish electorate will just have to elect people who will. They are a luxury we can no longer afford. General elections are supposed to be about electing a government. In February we appear to have merely elected a much larger opposition.