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Hurlers on the ditch

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.

So how will things play out? Very difficult to know, but my best guess at the moment is along these lines:

The 33rd. Dail, elected last February,  won't succeed in electing a new Taoiseach and government because far too many of the TDs and parties want to be in opposition rather than government. Eventually the current FG led government will simply run out of road and will call new elections to sort out the impasse.

The electorate will then give short shrift to any independents/parties that didn't help to form a government and will insist on knowing who will work with who to form a government next time around. Michael Martin insisting he won't work with SF will disqualify him as a potential Taoiseach. It will be Varadkar vs. Mary Lou and the outcome will depend on how well Varadkar does in the meantime.

Everyone will be shit scared they will be required to bear the cost of the prolonged lockdown. The government will drop its support for the Apple Appeal and hope they get the €13 billion windfall sooner rather than later. In the meantime borrowing will go through the roof - which won't be a problem until interest rates start to rise.

The IT, Pharma, Med Tech and Fintech industries will grow rapidly and bail the economy out, to a large degree, but it could take years. Tourism will never quite be the same again. China will supercede the US as the world's dominant economy. The EU will be given increased competencies in healthcare, procurement, disaster management and essential product/services security and self sufficiency. Everyone outside the EU will have to fend for themselves. A new hard edged realism will pervade much of politics. It won't be pretty.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Apr 4th, 2020 at 11:08:03 PM EST
I don't see that happening until the current batch of politicians are kicked out and a new bunch comes in to run the place.

My guess: get ready for a repeat of the 1930s as Neo-liberalism fails into Fascism.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sun Apr 5th, 2020 at 02:46:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It was always thus.

My impression from the countries where I know the modern political history fairly well is that during the post war era being in power and being able to deliver goodies to the constituents was a good way to be re-elected. Events could - and did - disturb things and threw governments out.

The change comes with what we can call the neoliberal era, starting in late 70ies to early 90ies. Here being in power means taking the blame.

I think the difference is explained mainly by the difference in economics. In the post-war era full employment was a prime directive, which meant those in power had the task of directing what to employ people with doing next. This gave power to fulfill promises, as well as kept a decent proportion of the population reasonably satisfied.

In the neoliberal era low inflation in consumer goods and wages (but not in assets, for examples houses) is the prime directive, and it is upheld by keeping unemployment high enough. This gives the politicians in government much less power as much of the labour force needs to be idle.

If you can't anyway deliver it is probably better to be in opposition.

by fjallstrom on Mon Apr 6th, 2020 at 08:00:43 AM EST
I meant to start with "It wasn't always thus"...
by fjallstrom on Mon Apr 6th, 2020 at 08:08:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ireland went through a period, post 1933, where Fianna Fail was the natural party of government chiefly because it was seen to be not part of the economic elite and on the side of small farmers, rather than big, the self employed, labourers, and those viscerally opposed to the 'Anglo-Irish aristocracy' who still wielded considerable influence through control of property, businesses, and the professions.

Then Fianna Fail came to be seen as being corrupted by its own success, in league with nouveau riche property developers and corrupt businessmen exploiting their connections to the new Fianna Fail elite. Charlie Haughey, taoiseach around the 1980's exemplified this change. Nationalism came to be exploited for personal gain. The Troubles in N. Ireland polarised opinion.

His acolyte, Bertie Ahern, reinvigorated the brand with the advent of the Celtic Tiger in the 1990's and encouraged a neo-liberal "let it rip" economic adventurism where dissent was for losers and everybody, supposedly had the opportunity to make money. The brand was almost totally destroyed by the 2008/9 crash and subsequent banking bail-out which let their civil war rivals, Fine Gael back into power 2011-2020.

But Fine Gael have never been forgiven for their earlier, more elitest, roots in the comprador bourgeoisie, who prospered under British rule,  continued to be strongly represented in the propertied, business and professional classes, and were perceived to represent the new establishment.

Despite bringing the economy back from the brink, growing it almost as fast as during the Celtic Tiger era, and bringing in some much needed social reforms, their neo-liberal model left many people feeling left behind, and relatively if not absolutely poorer than they were before.

Sinn Fein repositioned themselves from a quasi-fascist, nationalist, anti-EU and militarist organisation to an allegedly progressive, reforming, and social democratic party to fill the vaccuum for those who could forgive neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael. They have sucked almost all the oxygen out of the air for the Labour Party and previous  incumbents of the social democrat space.

So now we have two old established parties, both perceived as as conservative, who are used to being in government, and a very fragmented left many of whom have bitter experience of being co-opted by the conservative parties as junior coalition partners, and subsequently judged redundant by the electorate.

No one knows how the Covid-19 crisis will play out, and most are running from the responsibility of leading the national response. Many of the measures taken by Fine Gael to combat the crisis are measures the left have been proposing for years, so either Fine Gael will end up stealing the left's clothes, or more likely, as many suspect, it will revert to type afterwards.

Either way politics in Ireland is in turmoil, with a lot of sturm und drang, with a lot of shouting from the sidelines and few willing to weather the storm of conflicting political aspirations and economic realities. Everyone knows things will never be the same again but no consensus has emerged as to what those changes will be or who can lead the change process. Vested interests will fight furiously to protect their interests, and it is doubtful whether the political system will be strong enough to overcome them.

Interesting times...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Apr 6th, 2020 at 12:31:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
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?

Excellent, Frank! I can answers that question about the USA and it is a resounding "Yes"
by StillInTheWilderness on Tue Apr 7th, 2020 at 01:38:33 PM EST

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