In the 1992 general election in Ireland there were 166 Dáil seats, so a working majority was anything better than 83. Labour won the election that year by doubling its seats to 33. Fine Gael lost 10 seats and was left with 45.
The Democratic Left party won four.
One of the stories of that election was that if Labour had run more candidates it would have won more seats. I was there at the time, and it is the case that if we had had our way there were at least two constituencies where we wanted to run a second candidate — Dublin North and Dublin South as they were called at the time.
As it happened we had two quotas in each of those constituencies. If we’d had the right number of candidates we’d have had 35 seats.
The combined FG/Lab/DL total would have been 84. The Rainbow government that was refused then by Fine Gael, but accepted two years later, would have been irresistible. History would have been different.
I’m saying this because history is staring us in the face again. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are looking at it.
By the time the votes are counted, the two parties combined will have a working majority, or at worst will need no more than an Independent TD or two to support them.
For that reason, a Fianna Fáil/ Sinn Féin coalition is the only logical outcome of this transformative election.
The only question in my mind is who should be Taoiseach. Should it be the leader of the party with the largest number of seats, or the leader of the party with the largest number of votes?
Or is the irrefutable logic, at last, pointing towards a rotating Taoiseach?
As someone who has opposed Sinn Féin all my adult life, it has won a resounding mandate that has to be respected and admired.
This was a monumental election for Sinn Féin, the sort of election result that no one could have predicted — or did predict.
It has won the largest share of the vote of any political party in the country, and if the party had run enough candidates it would have the largest number of seats. As it is, Sinn Féin will in the end beat Fine Gael into third place on both counts.
And the party has been very clear that its mandate is a mandate for government.
A mandate for government, for a party that was in the relatively recent past banned from the airwaves in Ireland. From that point to winning the largest share of the popular vote is the most remarkable, earth-shattering transformation.
And there is more to come. Whatever government is appointed can only be appointed in accordance with the terms of the constitution.
And the Constitution makes it clear, in clear and simple language, that the government is appointed by the President after the Dáil votes for it. They take no oath of office, but they are bound by several provisions of the Constitution.
They are collectively responsible for all government decisions — that means they are responsible to each other as well as to us. They are answerable to the Dáil, and only to the Dáil.
They must implement the policies adopted by the Dáil, and they must maintain its confidence.
And they must respect the confidentiality of government meetings, unless the High Court says otherwise in the public interest. Article 28.4.3 of the Constitution says that in black and white.
Apart from anything else, that means that it is impossible, in the context of our democracy as it is prescribed by our Constitution, for any cabinet minister to consult with “shadowy figures” as part of carrying out their responsibilities.
Of course members of the government consult, and if they’ve any sense try to get the best advice possible, but when they’re in the Cabinet Room they’re there as part of the exercise of collective responsibility.
This is routinely explained to each incoming minister as he or she is appointed by the cabinet secretary. He will supply them with a copy of the Cabinet Handbook (which they and we can read online anyway) and set out their democratic and constitutional responsibilities from the off.
There’s no need for any misunderstanding about it — and there’s no scope for dark theorising either.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, there is a sort of cold war going on as the final figures clarify themselves. But actually, all that’s really left to do is to wish Taoiseach Micheál and Tánaiste Mary Lou (or vice versa!) the best of luck. We may not all have voted for it, but it’s in all our interests — especially when it comes to the housing crisis — that it succeeds.
I would like to say one more thing before I finish. I joined the Labour Party not far short of a half century ago. I first worked for the party in a by-election, as a volunteer, in 1981. I served the party on a full-time basis for 20 years.
Here’s what I know (and these are simply facts). In all those years and many more, the party of which I’m a member has never been involved in an act of political corruption. No member of my party has ever taken bribes nor had to appear in front of a tribunal.
No member of my party ever had to defend an atrocity, nor make apologies on behalf of the party to victims of violence. No member of my party ever found themselves having to offer reassurance about our democratic commitment.
And apart from that altogether, I’ve been a member of a party that has been in the vanguard of progressive change in Ireland for all my life. It was a Labour minister, Frank Cluskey, who began the overhaul of the social security system to end its discriminations against women. Labour TDs were almost the only ones — at a time when it was really difficult to do so — to oppose the introduction of the Eighth Amendment.
Another Labour minister, Mervyn Taylor, spearheaded wide-ranging reforms of family law, culminating in the successful passage of a divorce referendum against all the odds.
From then on, Labour ministers have been to the forefront of progressive change. Equal marriage and the repeal of the Eighth would not have happened without Labour’s political leadership, and without Eamon Gilmore’s and Brendan Howlin’s advocacy.
And in that time I worked for a party leader, Dick Spring, whose contribution to lasting peace in Ireland has always been underestimated. You can’t objectively trace the progression from the Downing Street Declaration to Good Friday and beyond without seeing his role.
And I don’t believe you can look at the more open and inclusive Ireland we have today without recalling Spring’s advocacy of Mary Robinson as Ireland first woman president.
I hope you’ll forgive me therefore if one of my feelings this morning is profound sadness at the state of the party whose core values have influenced me all my life.
This isn’t the moment to analyse the reasons. All I want to say is that those values of community, of solidarity and equality, of inclusiveness and openness, of a deep and abiding democracy, must not be allowed to die.