Fine Gael would do well to form the coalition staring them in the face

It is a pack of lies to say the current Coalition inherited “a wreck”. And it’s not convincing people, writes Victoria White.

Fine Gael would do well to form the coalition staring them in the face

HOW dare Minister Richard Bruton give us the choice between turning into Greece and re-electing his government! Particularly as there is a potentially stable government made up of two centrist parties staring him in the face. A coalition between his party and the party which authored the plan for the recovery he is crowing about.

Yes, Fianna Fáil authored the bust too. But by the time Fine Gael and Labour took the reins of power in 2011, 75 percent of the painful budgetary “adjustment” had been made, the banking legislation had been put through, NAMA had been established, deficit reduction was on-target and tax receipts were ahead of target.

It is a pack of lies to say the current Coalition inherited “a wreck”. And it’s not convincing people. They are not impressed by the Taoiseach when he describes Fianna Fáil in terms usually reserved for the likes of Robert Mugabe, “responsible for driving our economy off the cliff… They ruined our economy… They lost 300,000 jobs and sent a quarter of a million people away…” Oh, please! The people are not that stupid. They know that from 2008 the Irish economy suffered a massive shock to its system which brought average incomes down to 2000 levels. They also know that in 2000 Irish people were, on average, still better off than they had ever been in their history and that going back there was not going back to the Famine.

They know that many people lost their jobs and many people emigrated. They know that while recession was felt all over the developed world it was particularly severe here for a number of reasons including the fact that Fianna Fáil governments at least from the early 2000s eroded the tax base, spent too much and failed to adequately regulate the banks.

People know that. It’s just been spelled out for them in the Banking Inquiry which cost nearly €5 million. However, they also know that from the time of Sean Lemass’s Fianna Fáil governments in the 1960s Ireland’s economy has, with some setbacks, been utterly transformed.

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They also know that mostly under Fianna Fáil-led governments the economy roared for nearly two decades from 1988 with real GDP expanding by six per cent a year, on average, until 2007. Unemployment went down from 16 per cent in 1994 to four per cent in 2000. I realise these are very crude metrics to measure the health of a society but it is by such crude metrics that Fine Gael is attacking Fianna Fáil.

Many people also know that our horrific banking crash and ensuing recession was among the shortest lived of any such crash in recent history. They know that when the current government came to power it carried out the economic plan which Lenihan had written with his Cabinet before the Troika came to town and which the Troika subsequently approved.

Brian Lenihan
Brian Lenihan

The troika’s financial assistance depended on the passing of Budget 2011. The importance of passing this Budget through the Dáil kept the Green Party in government into 2011. I remember Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney putting his hand up and saying he would support Fianna Fáil’s Budget if this was necessary to secure the IMF funding. But Fine Gael and Labour en masse publicly rejected the Budget and both put down motions of “no confidence” in the Taoiseach and his Government.

The Greens could not vote confidence in Brian Cowen, who had just replaced half his Cabinet but knew that the Government’s collapse before the Budget legislation was put through the Dáil would imperil the country. They appealed to Fine Gael and Labour to drop their motions of no confidence until the Budget was passed . Following a meeting with Brian Lenihan on January 24, 2011, at which Fine Gael and Labour were fully appraised of the exact state of the country’s finances, they dropped their motions and let through the Budget.

They then voted against it. But theatrics aside, what we had in essence at the darkest point in the current crisis was a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition with the support of Labour. There was nothing unusual about that. It was Charlie Haughey of Fianna Fáil’s implementation of a Fine Gael budget strategy, supported by Alan Dukes’s Fine Gael, which got us out of the 1980s recession. It was Sean Lemass of Fianna Fáil’s implementation of the economic reform strategy commissioned by Fine Gael from TK Whitaker which sprang this country out of poverty in the 1960s. The political history of our State has been dominated by Fianna Fáil’s implementation of Fine Gael’s strategy on Partition.

Both parties are routinely hypocritical about their opponent’s legacies but every now and a voice is heard above the tribal hum. Who can forget Leo Varadkar’s hilarious charge against then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen in the Dáil in 2010 — “You’re no Sean Lemass , you’re no Jack Lynch, You’re no John Bruton. You’re a Garret FitzGerald .” Still more rarely do you hear the conciliatory voice of intelligence. Brian Lenihan epitomised it. When he spoke at Béal na mBláth in 2010 he explained how his paternal grandfather was pro-Treaty and had joined Fianna Fáil because he saw in Lemass the “modernising tendency” which he had seen in Collins. He encouraged followers of both FF and FG to overcome their tribal differences, mentioning how much harder it had been for the people of the North to overcome their far deeper ones. The Civil War was, he said, “moving out of living memory”.

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar

In truth the difference between the parties is one of culture and of emphasis: both are centrist but Fianna Fáil redistributes more promising, for instance, €1.5 billion less “fiscal space” than this election’s high spending Fine Gael. There are clearly exceptions — Fianna Fáil’s right-wing Mc Creevy, Fine Gael’s left-leaning Garret FitzGerald — but they usually operate slightly to the left (FF) and slightly to the right (FG) of the centre.

I’m not being partisan as I can only remember giving either party my Number 1 once, and I was a teenager. But if the people speak for a coalition of the parties in the General Election then they must work together to provide the best possible government or grossly dishonour the memories of the men and women who have built this democracy.

That was the solution which Brian Lenihan suggested to some close allies before he died and which he forecast when he said at Béal na mBláth: “The power of symbolism cannot be denied all the more so as we move towards the centenaries of the Easter Rising and all that followed. If today’s commemoration can be seen as a further public act of historical reconciliation, at one of Irish history’s sacred places, then I will be proud to have played my part.”

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