Gary Murphy: Lethargy over forming government is absurd

Gary Murphy: Lethargy over forming government is absurd

Ever since the economic crash of 2008, the electorate has become a fickle beast.

The stability that characterised the political system crashed along with the economy. As recently as 2007, Fianna Fáil won 42% of the vote and came within four seats of an overall majority. It is now one of three parties with a roughly equal share of the vote.

If anything underlined the increasingly shallow nature of party loyalties amongst the Irish electorate, it was that in the local and European elections of May 2019 nearly half of all voters chose different parties in the two different ballots.

Local elections in particular are often seen as barometers for general elections and the closer it is between elections the more accurate the comparison tends to be. Yet Sinn Féin surged from 9.5% in May 2019 to 24.5% in February 2020.

There are a variety of complicated factors for this remarkable and unprecedented rise in support.

These include dissatisfaction with the government over health, housing and homelessness, the upset many people felt with the microeconomic nature of their own existence which countered the generally positive macroeconomic indicators, poor campaigns by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, a well organised Sinn Féin campaign fronted by a supremely self-confident leader in Mary Lou McDonald, and luck in the form of the RIC commemoration controversy just the week before Leo Varadkar called the election.

Now three months after the election and in the midst of the worst global pandemic of all our lifetimes, these factors are extremely relevant as the glacial pace of government formation continues.

A view seems to have emerged amongst all parties, bar Sinn Féin, that there is no real rush to starting any kind of talks never mind concluding them.

As Sinn Féin remains persona non grata to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and does not have the Dáil numbers to lead a left wing government, the impetus on government formation lies with the two parties who between them have led every administration in the history of the state.

The 70-day 2016 negotiation process is now the standard template. The Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, says he is hopeful a government can be formed by the middle of June.

Meanwhile he sits at the virtual cabinet table with no less than three ministers who lost their seats in February, a fourth super junior who lost her seat, and a fifth super junior who did not even contest the election.

Last Wednesday, we had the extraordinary spectacle of the junior minister John Halligan, who didn't contest the election, using a public event to call for the current government to continue in office for another couple of months and "see where we are."

This is absurd.

The Greens have issued their 17 demands to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, if its demand of a 7% annual reduction in carbon emissions is to be reached.

Simon Coveney's response was blunt, declaring the Greens can forget its 7% carbon emission reduction demand if it “decimates” farming and rural Ireland.

He said Fine Gael will not move on the issue even if it means causing a second general election.

The mood music from the Greens’ grass roots is not positive.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats produced their own letter posing nine questions in response to the Fianna Fáil Fine Gael aspirational framework document.

Even though that document commits itself to state intervention economy unprecedented in the history of the state and the ministry of health is Róisín Shortall’s for the taking and with it the chance at long last to implement Sláintecare and a one tier health care system, the Social Democrats would seem to have very little interest in entering government.

It is clearly very difficult for the Greens and the Social Democrats to enter government with the establishment in the guise of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They both saw what happened to Labour in 2016. The Greens themselves had the most bruising experience of government between 2007 and 2011 and lost all their seats in that election.

But if not now, when will they ever enter government? How can they plausibly criticise the next government after turning down the chance to go into it? What will their slogan be in the next election; vote for us to stay in opposition?

Labour’s Alan Kelly has got his leadership off to a positive start with his criticism of the transparency of the National Public Health Emergency Team and indeed the government itself.

His robust nature might well be suited to criticism in opposition but the same questions asked of the Greens and Social Democrats must also be asked of Labour even though they had terrible elections in 2011 and 2016.

The questions the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats are all asking of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in relation to costings and policy are good ones and need addressing.

What is so depressing is that they are being asked by letter. It is absolutely ridiculous that some twelve weeks after the election there have been no substantive sit down talks between the parties.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael must take some of the blame. It was crystal clear in the immediate aftermath of the election that it there was to be any type of government that excluded Sinn Féin then Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had to coalesce.

Yet we had weeks of the two parties doing very little about getting a deal done.

Meanwhile, the virus was spreading globally and Ireland remained politically cocooned in its habitat of no negotiation.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can also be criticised for their own attitude to Sinn Féin.

They now urge the smaller parties to enter government for the good of the country yet refused to countenance even any discussion with Sinn Féin even though they received the most votes in the election.

Sinn Féin didn’t win the election but it surely received a mandate to have the other parties at least talk to it.

Micheál Martin was as insistent before the election that he wouldn’t enter government with Fine Gael as he was about Sinn Féin.

The danger remains that no one beyond the rural independents will join the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael alliance. That brings talk of a second election.

Beyond the nightmare of trying to even organise an election in the midst of this awful pandemic all parties should be warned against it. The Irish voter has never been so fickle.

That voter now has worries about the pandemic and its hideous consequences both physically and emotionally.

That voter deserves a government out of February election and that is what all parties should be thinking of now.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University.

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