Hung Dáil may see parties sleeping with the enemy

History teaches us that in times of seeming stagnation compromises can be reached, writes Brian Murphy

THE phrase “hung Dáil” is again en vogue. The last time this phrase got such an airing in our political discourse was the summer of 1989. Back then, Ireland experienced a real political crisis. Almost four weeks on from polling day, the country was still in the hands of a caretaker administration. For the first time in Irish history, a new Dáil had failed to elect a taoiseach. No party had an overall majority and none of the parties seemed able to conclude a coalition arrangement.

The parliamentary arithmetic pointed towards a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats government, but the big problem was that the leaders of both parties were bitter enemies.

Des O’Malley was on the public record as describing Charles Haughey as “unfit for high public office”, while Mr Haughey had spent a large part of the election campaign attacking the PDs and uttering the refrain that “coalitions don’t work”.

The feud between Haughey and O’Malley was political, but it was also personal. According to one contemporary observer, there was a “visceral animosity” between them and this stretched back as far as the Arms Trial, almost two decades previously.

With this level of baggage, some commentators contended that it couldn’t be done and many key insiders in both of the parties believed it would never happen. However, on July 12, 1989, a rubicon was crossed. Haughey and O’Malley shook hands and they formed a government.

Not everyone was happy. In Fianna Fáil, there was anger that the party had ditched its core value of saying no to coalitions.

Some PD members were shocked and appalled. A party that was born out of failed efforts to depose Charles Haughey as leader of Fianna Fáil was now providing the parliamentary support to re-elect Haughey to the office of the taoiseach.

The groundbreaking events of 1989 are worth recalling in the midst of the current general election. Both Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin have been unequivocal in their assertions that they will not do business with each other.

However, history should teach us that the catchcries of “never” in an election campaign can mean something very different in the aftermath of the votes being counted.

Faced with the unpalatable alternative of a second election, Haughey and O’Malley suspended their long-running hostility. The relationship between Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin is nowhere near as toxic as that of O’Malley and Haughey. For the current Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders, their rivalry is not personal. It is simply political business.

Political soothsaying is always a hazardous occupation, but the polls are increasingly suggesting that the only conceivable government will be a combination of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

If this is how the numbers do finally stack up, it would be naive to think that experienced and professional politicians like Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin would refuse to respect this outcome because of the faded colours of the Civil War.

The script is easily written. After making suitable noises about stability, the country needing a government and even referencing the much-vaunted national interest, these two pragmatic leaders will sit down and cut a deal.

Such a scenario may well be prefaced by the rare sight of the Dáil failing to elect a Taoiseach when it reconvenes on March 10. Such political theatre and the vacuum that it implies would serve to provide cover for the two parties to resile from their pre-election rejections of each other.

The speculation being generated about a second election in 2016 is slightly sensationalist. It fails to take account of the strong survival instincts within our body politic and a political culture that puts an emphasis on two central commandments, “get thyself elected” and “mind thy seat”.

The leaders of the main parties intuitively understand that if they fail to give the people a government, causing a further costly election, they will be inviting the severe wrath of the electorate down on their heads.

The fact that the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders are now taking chunks out of each other should persuade nobody that they won’t soon be political bedfellows. Irish politics has strong form in this regard.

In the lead up to the 1992 general election, Dick Spring regularly castigated Fianna Fáil. The Labour leader told the Dáil that Albert Reynolds’s party had “gone so far down the road of blindness to standards and of blindness to the people they are supposed to represent that it is impossible to see how anyone could support them”.

When the ballot boxes were put away, Spring and Reynolds formed the first Fianna Fáil-Labour government. Spring’s dramatic U-turn saw the electorate wait in the long grass for Labour. At the 1997 general election, the “Spring Tide” haul of 33 TDs was more than halved to just 15 TDs.

The Labour experience shows the importance of properly laying the ground for a new coalition departure. Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny’s mutual rejection of each other may not stop them from forming a government in a post-election scenario. However, if not managed carefully, the huge volteface that this would entail might sow the seeds for serious political unpopularity in the future.

In 2007, I observed at first-hand the acute political antennae of Bertie Ahern, as he sought to give himself room to manoeuvre in pursuit of a historic third term.

 

I was surprised when Ahern instructed me to heavily focus on the environment in drafting his opening address for the pre-election Fianna Fáil ard fheis. This was hardly the traditional fare for such a speech and I expressed concerns that the taoiseach might not connect with the delegates.

Bertie told me he was less worried about those in the hall and more interested in sending a message to the Green Party. He told me that he and Seamus Brennan had been crunching the numbers and they were convinced that Fianna Fáil would need the Greens after the election.

Ahern’s speech commenced with the key commitment that there was “no greater challenge for our country and the world than protecting our environment and dealing urgently with the challenge of climate change”.

Throughout the subsequent election, Ahern was careful not to say anything that would exclude the Greens from his post-election permutations. His Green counterpart, Trevor Sargent, took a different approach. He attacked the Taoiseach relentlessly, even describing Ahern as a ‘dead man walking’.

In the aftermath of the election, Green Party members voted overwhelmingly at a special conference to go into government with Fianna Fáil. At the same time, Trevor Sargent resigned as Green leader to honour his pre-election pledge that he would not lead the party into government with Fianna Fáil.

Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin have spent weeks ruling each other out. However, if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do form a government after the General Election, it is hard to see either Enda or Micheál doing a Trevor.

Brian Murphy is a lecturer in communications at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He is a former speechwriter for two Taoisigh.


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