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Gerard Howlin: We may elect TDs, but they get to choose the government

Gerard Howlin: We may elect TDs, but they get to choose the government

A general election to choose 160 TDs in 39 constituencies is on. Polling day is Saturday, February 8.

In the swirl that has started, remember that Ireland enjoys the longest continuity under a written Constitution of any European country. The election of a 33rd Dáil is a considerable achievement and not an inevitable outcome.

The 1937 Constitution has aged, especially on social policy. But on the rights of the individual, the independence of the judiciary, and an acutely responsive electoral system, it largely delivered. Look around and, in terms of the durability of its institutions, Ireland has done well. They haven’t always been as effective on the policy as they have been flexible politically, however.

Aside from an occasional landslide, it is a handful of votes in a handful of constituencies that counts.

Political stability in the form of the ‘two-and-a-half-party system’ from Fianna Fáil’s entry to Dáil in 1927 to the 2011 general election was remarkable. But more remarkable still was the durability of our political structures amid the public anger of economic collapse.

In 2011, 45% of all TDs were elected for the first time. In 2016, 38% were elected for the first time. When the Dáil was dissolved yesterday, only 17% of TDs were there nine years ago. Of those, not all enjoyed continuity of service. As a system, it was bent almost to the ground by a public anger, but it didn’t break.

Part of the reason for its durability is also its weakness. The multi-seat constituency ensures deep personal connections locally with national politicians. If politicians generally are out of favour, the local TD who is personally known and assiduously cultivates the community is different. They are not so bad, you see.

In a European context, that need for feral competition among parliamentarians in the same constituency, let alone in the same party in the same constituency, is unknown. It is the deeply-rooted community presence of politicians, and the ability of the electorate to nuance their choices through the multi-seat system that has given Irish politics the safety values required. The downside is that there is little to protect national policy from purely local or highly sectional interests.

Our inability to widen the tax base beyond an anaemic and now stalled local property tax is one proof of that. Historically, the failure to deliver water charges is another.

There will be a lot of talk on health and housing in this election, but little on how the investments needed will be funded. Things are OK so long as the sun keeps shining.

Economically, we never applied the lessons of the crash. Sensible decisions in the last budget, and politically reaching out again for the virtue of prudence, are undermined by budgets in 2016, 2017, and 2018 that were progressively more foolish — and correctly decried as such.

On the economy, it is an open question for this election whether Fine Gael is still more trusted and credible than Fianna Fáil.

The Fine Gael argument is that Fianna Fáil can’t be trusted because it is the party of the crash. Another is that the only government Micheál Martin can lead is one based on his centre-left party being in hock to others further left than himself.

If Fine Gael has old style, Fianna Fáil undermined its own credentials, failing in opposition to manage its spending commitments. Just off centre stage, spending demands abound, sponsored by the others on which the larger parties must depend.

Outrageously, Labour wants to postpone moving back entitlement to the pension to 67. Having been crucified in government by the politics of the water charges, now it imitates the opportunism of that which did it in.

A lot of the detail will be lost. But what will loom ever larger between now and election day is the question of who is trusted or believed more.

For the first time since 2007, there is a real contest for the office of taoiseach and the opportunity to form a government. To that extent, this is a presidential-style election between the Taoiseach and the leader of the opposition.

In 2007, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined to secure 68.9% of the vote. This time, that tally will be south of 60%. In a Dáil of 160 TDs, their combined seats will be between 100 and 110.

The prize of winning this election is unlike any other presented, certainly since 1948, and I wasn’t around then.

The use of the word ‘win’ needs to be qualified in election coverage. The larger party that comes out ahead with more than 50, but probably fewer than 55 seats, wins first go at forming a government.

But getting from the early 50s in Dáil seats to 80, through a series of deals with Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, and myriad Independents is very challenging. Each has its own internal dynamic.

If Labour is behind the Greens and it has only third pick of the policies and positions available, there will be an issue within Labour about government at all.

The Social Democrat TDs have eschewed government or walked out of it. Few Independent TDs see their role in life as making up the numbers so another Independent colleague can enjoy ministerial office. No politician lacks ego or self-belief.

The only government possible on a base of 50-odd seats is a house of cards.

Momentum driven by the campaign could alter all of this. For now, I see a closely fought war of attrition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over a relatively small number of seats. That puts the winner in the driving seat of a vehicle with levers that are attached to very little.

Fine Gael’s problem is that peak Leo has passed. It wasn’t possible to cash the cheque at the time. Now it’s back to normal for his party. Its base is secure but that is not enough. It must make seat gains to stay in office.

On a constituency-by-constituency basis, I can see a net gain for Fine Gael of two or three, but only if all goes well. It faces some certain losses and the effect of the Greens on its final tally is unknown.

The problem is that the Fine Gael base is never enough.

As a party, it hasn’t been as smart at its politics as it should have been. Insularity has a cost. But if Fianna Fáil has an edge, and I think it has a small one, it is well within reach of a good campaign by Fine Gael or being done-in by its own mistakes.

It is not simply that this election is too close to call. It is that its ultimate result is only a preface to events, to which the campaign itself may not be a reliable guide.

We elect a Dáil on February 8. The 160 we elect — not us — choose a government.

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