Fergus Finlay: New Irish Government will face many political challenges

This is going to make for one of the most complicated relationships in our political history, writes Fergus Finlay

Fergus Finlay: New Irish Government will face many political challenges
The outgoing Fine Gael Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Micheál Martin, the new Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, at the Convention Centre Dublin at the weekend. Picture: MAXWELLS

I have had a number of mentors in my life — people who were wiser than me. I was always happy to learn from them. Happier still, if the truth be told, -to the point of shameless- to steal their better ideas.

One of the wise men from whom I regularly stole was William Scally, who once said that no government is ever as stable as it looks from the outside, but neither is it ever as unstable as it seems. It’s particularly true that when a government is brand new there is a widespread assumption about its cohesion. But sometimes traps are laid from the very beginning.

Which is where the wisdom of another of my mentors Pat Magner comes in. Pat has served a number of Labour Party leaders, and is well known in the political world. Many of us who worked alongside him learned a lot from him over the years. One of his powerful dictums was that politics is always a minefield, and only a fool ventures into a minefield without a good map.

Why is a map of the minefield such a useful item? Because no-one ever steps on a mine if they can see it in advance.

So let me offer the incoming government a map of some of the minefield that lies ahead. It’s by no means comprehensive — one could write acres, for instance, about weird design choices that have been made in the construction of government departments.

And remember, the big sticky-up mines are easy to avoid. So even though the state of the economy, and the continuing pressures of the pandemic, are huge and challenging, the government can see them coming. Here’s a couple of things that mightn’t be quite so obvious.

So, this government has some very odd features. One of them — and don’t understate this — is the fact that they won’t be able to use the cabinet room for the immediately foreseeable future, because of the requirements of social distancing.

The cabinet room has an almost mystical effect on government. It’s a fine room with inner and outer doors to ensure that members aren’t disturbed. It’s a place where great secrets are shared, where the advice is always solemn, where the consequence of decisions can be immense. It’s the only room in the country that’s governed by rules that are explicit in the Constitution — collective cabinet responsibility and cabinet confidentiality.

I actually think it’s hard to overstate the binding effect of sitting in this room for meeting after meeting as a member of the government. For that reason, I think cohesion is going to be harder to build than they think when they are deprived of the political intimacy that sitting in cabinet normally generates.

Fergus Finlay: New Irish Government will face many political challenges
The newly elected Cabinet of the 33rd Dáil meet for their first cabinet meeting in Dublin Castle on Saturday — but not in the traditional Cabinet room.  Picture: Julien Behal/PA

A second oddity is the fact — and this is the first time this has ever happened — that a former Taoiseach will sit in the Cabinet, not only serving a new Taoiseach but waiting his turn to take the reins back again.

This is going to make for one of the most complicated relationships in our political history. There are reasons — and usually good reasons — why the former leader of a country opts to leave the political stage when his or her time is up. The new leader can’t function under a shadow. He or she has to step out on their own.

It can become utterly intolerable to have the “former” sitting in the corner of the room occasionally offering wisdom about “how we did things in my day”. And the comparisons are always odious. Just imagine the commentary and the comparisons, for instance, the first time An Taoiseach Micheál Martin goes off to meet UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Remember how great Leo was?

It’s not unique to Ireland, of course. Look at the lengths Barack Obama has gone to to stay out of his successor’s way in the United States. And how much have you heard from Theresa May in Britain? Both have resisted almighty temptations to point to the obvious and egregious failures of the people who took over from them.

So it’s going to take a lot of thinking through, this new relationship. And it won’t be helped by those of us commentators who like to label everything. Micheál’s teeth will be on edge every time he hears the phrase “the real taoiseach”, and Leo will bridle at being described as the first tánaiste to a FF taoiseach.

They’re going to have to do more than suck that up. They have to transcend the past somehow, in all sorts of ways that haven’t occurred to anyone yet.

They might be ready for all that. But how much thought have they put in, I wonder, to the death of Terence MacSwiney or the execution of Kevin Barry?

MacSwiney was the Lord Mayor of Cork when he died on hunger strike in 1920. Barry was a young medical student when he died “high upon a gallows tree” in Mountjoy Jail a week later.

Fergus Finlay: New Irish Government will face many political challenges
Members of the Irish delegation at the signing of the Irish Free State Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, in  London, England, December 6, 1921 Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Both these events happened exactly a hundred years ago next October. They were among the first major events in a long sequence that saw the escalation, almost on a daily basis, of the War of Independence. They were followed in pretty short order by Bloody Sunday in Croke Park, and by the burning of Cork City by the Black and Tans. Both of those centenaries occur in November and December this year.

For now, probably the biggest complicating factor in remembering seminal and historic events like these this year will continue to be the coronavirus. But as we move into next year it gets much more complicated.

There will be really important centenaries — the ceasefire between the IRA and the British; the meeting between Éamon de Valera and David Lloyd George that led to the commencement of negotiations; the arrival in London of a major Irish delegation led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins; the signing of the Treaty; and the bitter and divisive Treaty debates in Dáil Éireann, with accusations of betrayal and treachery that have lasted down through the generations.

And the following period will be harder still. The start of the Civil War. The death of Arthur Griffith and the assassination of Michael Collins. The Ballyseedy Massacre. The execution of 77 republicans by the Free State government. And on, and on.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were born out of these events. The accusations of treachery and betrayal at the start, followed by murder and reprisal, were the things that formed the blood and sinew of the hundred-year rivalry between them. These events also shaped our country, our politics, our development. Families of one tribe have grown up hating the other over all these events — some of them, of course, atrocities.

And now they must find a way of commemorating events that shaped us while they drove us apart. Knowing what a mess Fine Gael made of the first attempt, when commemorating the RIC led to accusations that they were trying to celebrate the Black and Tans, they will know they really are in a minefield, with endless potential for explosions. Perhaps though, if they can navigate all that, they’ll find that the pandemic and the economic crisis were the easy bits after all.

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