Fergus Finlay: voters want Sinn Féin to govern... but there are caveats

'As Sunday turned into Monday, FF began to lose seats they should have won. And by the end of the day, only a three-party government was possible. And doubts immediately began to creep in.'

Fergus Finlay: voters want Sinn Féin to govern... but there are caveats

Well, I got it partly wrong last week. Not my fault, of course, Fianna Fáil let me down.

As the count started and the numbers started to come in, there was no doubt that FF would end up in the low forties and SF in the high thirties.

Between them, they were bound to reach the magic number of 80, and a two-party government would have been irresistible.

But as Sunday turned into Monday, FF began to lose seats they should have won. And by the end of the day, only a three-party government was possible. And doubts immediately began to creep in.

In the end, only Sinn Féin and the Greens could be said to have won. FF found themselves a bit forgiven, but still not trusted.

Labour still carried the burden of trying to fix a broken economy with some bad decisions along the way. And Fine Gael were hammered for forgetting that a strong economy is meaningless if aspects of society are broken.

The latter outcome was predictable from the beginning. Again and again FG told us that we were wonderful — and by extension they were wonderful.

Look at the brilliant job done to rebuild a strong economy after the wreckage. Fastest growth in Europe, job creation going gangbusters, Brexit managed well, the budget in surplus.

And the people listened and said, grand. If we’re that good, that wonderful, how in the name of everything that matters are old people lying on trolleys? How are so many children homeless? How are so many young people unable to get on the bottom rung of the property ladder? We came to see the boasting about the economy as a sort of snake-oil, the miracle cure that could cure nothing.

And then in the immediate aftermath of the count the situation was further complicated by Sinn Féin triumphalism.

They got an awful lot of votes in this election from people who would never have voted Up the Ra. People heard the story of the murder of Paul Quinn, held their noses, and voted for a party they believed could fix health and housing. The last thing they wanted to hear in the aftermath was pub chants of a different agenda, an agenda that would mean the end of our republic as we know it.

But still. Sinn Féin got a mandate, and a powerful one. As doubts crept in, one of the popular messages on radio and television was the thought that yes, they got 25% — but 75% of the people voted for someone else.

That’s not the way we work in Ireland. It’s well established now that we vote for coalitions.

The last time a single party got an overall majority in Ireland was 43 years ago. Jack Lynch won that majority, and as stable as it looked at the time, his career was finished two years later, fatally undermined by a man who played Iago to Lynch’s Othello.

The Iago in question, Charles J Haughey, presided over two minority single-party governments subsequently — one of them bolstered by the Tallaght strategy, which was the confidence and supply arrangement of its day — but he made a mess of both of them. (Incidentally, his second government was brought down by superb political management led by Brendan Howlin, one of the deadliest and most effective opposition whips the Dáil has ever seen.)

So, for nearly half a century Ireland has been governed by coalitions. And in every single one of them the party that got the largest share of the seats occupied the dominant position. Every single one of them involved compromise.

Charles Haughey: presided over two minority single-party governments
Charles Haughey: presided over two minority single-party governments

Fianna Fáil, despite their poor election and despite the fact that they are hugely outnumbered by Sinn Féin in the capital, are in that position. Sinn Féin have won the right to be a virtually equal partner. I mightn’t like that, but it’s a fact.

Instead of the logical — and democratic — thing happening, FF and FG are seeking to discover if they can put aside a century of bad blood, bitter rivalry, and endless back-biting to work together to deprive Sinn Féin of its hard-won mandate. There’s something terribly wrong about that.

I’ve always thought that it would be the beginning of real new politics in Ireland if the parties of the Civil War could come together. But not in these essentially anti-democratic circumstances.

Can Sinn Féin prevent it? I reckon there are two things they need to do.

First, what people want from them now — and it would make a big difference — is a formal recognition of the Constitution of Ireland, Bunreacht na hÉireann.

That document talks about the nation, the principle of consent, the primacy of parliament, the role of the courts. It sets out the rights and duties of citizens, and it lays out the fundamental democratic principles that underpin everything we do, and how we go about change.

It would be refreshing and different to hear Mary Lou give a speech about that — a speech that would make it clear, as a promise, that her party was committing itself to Bunreacht na hÉireann, and all its mechanisms and procedures.

Second, she and they need to recognise that the clear and unequivocal message from the people was that there are two sets of fundamentally defining issues that must be the priorities beyond all other priorities for the next government.

One set of issues — health and housing — are the over-riding concerns of this generation. But we owe it to the next generation to begin to deal decisively with the other set — global warming, climate change, and the survival of our species. Of course they’re not enough.

The government that is formed now, if there is one, also has to be careful and responsible when it comes to the management of the economy. Fine Gael were right when they said Brexit wasn’t done yet, and it will require skilful management and discipline.

So the next programme for government has to contain compromise. But a government that is committed — as an entire government — to fixing health and housing can do it, or most of it, within a term.

A government that takes a 'whole of government' approach to the major environmental issues will have to make unpopular decisions in the short term, but they will visibly pay off in the next five years.

There’s everything to play for here. We will lose a golden opportunity if Sinn Féin continue to hector, and if the other parties try to confound a democratic outcome just because they don’t like it.

I guess the posturing will continue on all sides until the Dáil meets and fails to elect a taoiseach. Then the clamouring will begin for the national interest to dominate.

But the national interest won’t be served if the system doesn’t at least try to respect the views of the electorate.

The people of Ireland want Sinn Féin to be allowed to try. Sinn Féin need to respond to that with humility, recognising why so many are afraid of them. But others need to set aside unthinking obduracy.

The people have voted for a fresh start, and heaven knows we need it.

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