SO exactly a week after we all went to the polls we are looking forward to a bright new dawn in Irish politics. Hey, you crowd down the back, stop sniggering. It’s true, or more accurately it could be true, if things work out.
Followers of Irish politics are in a quandary at present. Do we embrace this optimism and take the politicians at face value, or do we revert to our traditional realism? safe in the knowledge that we will once again be let down. It’s a bit like the serially philandering spouse, after years of playing fast and loose with the marriage vows, promising they’ve had a road to Damascus-like conversion, and all will be different from now on. Are we stupid to trust, or do we take a leap of faith?
Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin has continued his purple streak in terms of striking the right note with the electorate, just as he did so beautifully during the campaign. He issued a statement on Monday speaking about how we must change the way our politics is done; should avoid the mistakes of the past; and that the new Dáil should not represent business as usual. He sought cross-Dáil agreement on reforms to be reached before discussions on the make-up of the next government.
In the process he stole a march on the shell-shocked Fine Gael and a Taoiseach under pressure after a terrible general election campaign and result. There is a certain pathetic quality to the way Fine Gael even feels the need to remind us that they are still the largest group in the new Dáil, while Micheál has stood aloft in a “don’t hit me now with the motherhood and apple pie of politics in me arms” sort of way.
But in truth, the strength of the Fianna Fáil vote, just six seats between the two parties now, means you almost do have to be reminded just who “won” the general election. Micheál looks politically very strong, while there is a sense of the power ebbing away from Enda Kenny.
The Taoiseach in his statement issued on Tuesday, said his party was determined to play their part in providing the Irish people with a Government committed to working on their behalf. He pledged to “engage fully and inclusively with other parties, groups and independent deputies”.
Then Simon Coveney goes on Prime Time on Tuesday night. He does a good job up to a point, pledging that Fine Gael is willing to change and needs to take on board, within reason, what other parties are looking for and that it needs to be a party that is willing to do things that it has not been willing to do before. But then he appeared to say that water charges are up for discussion, something he subsequently rowed back on the next day. There is nothing terribly unusual about this except that Simon, while busy discussing our “new politics” let slip on something that was a major bugbear of “old politics”, and found himself slaughtered by Fianna Fáil.
So the truth is that a week after the general election, when we are apparently in this new dispensation, there is possibly even less trust between the two main parties than there was ahead of the election, if that is possible. But what both need to remember is that the Irish voter is clearly falling out of love with the two big parties that have dominated our politics for so long. Yes they have given Fianna Fáil a second chance this time, but it really is hard to see this affection being sustained if they are disappointed once again.
It is time to take deep breaths and to reach very deep inside themselves to find a less partisan way forward. It’s been interesting to listen to a whole host of former senior politicians in recent days, including former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes, insisting that change is needed in the way we do our political business and that now is the time for that to happen. Those that are still politically active would do well to listen to these old hands, and realise they have the benefit of both experience and hindsight now that they are no longer active in politics.
Our politicians face a very daunting task, which from some angles looks nigh on impossible. But if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil want to make it work they will find a way to do so. In public let them mess around with the usual theatrics until the Dáil meets on March 10 and the subsequent, very important, St Patrick’s Day visits. But let them have serious proposals ready after that.
Politically, one of the main obstacles here is maintaining party discipline. It wasn’t a big problem for Enda Kenny in the past for various reasons, not least the iron grip he kept on the party post the 2010 heave against him. But all is now changed and he is damaged goods politically. There is considerable anger within the party for his central and poor role in the election campaign.
Party discipline has not been Micheál Martin’s forte. There were times over the past few years when it was so poor as to almost be laughable. His position is now considerably strengthened. But he obviously needs to look at how he leads and bring a bit more brio to keeping his people in line.
This brings us around to the role of the media. The massive fallout from the election result is manna from heaven in terms of headlines and filling column inches. But if we are to lecture the politicians about discipline and responsibility, I believe we also have a duty to avoid the worse extremes of the politician-baiting that can go on. Finding a way out of this impasse is a very tough ask. There will be plenty to write and talk about afterwards, and the politicians deserve a little space to work it all out.
Finally there is always a high churn rate at each general election as a number of TDs lose their seats and new people are elected in their place. No doubt many of them will prove to be fine parliamentarians but there is always a sense of regret for some of those who lost out. These are usually the TDs who fought hard on certain issues, and managed to step outside the rigid party structure in fighting for what they believed in. For me, in no particular order, those included Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Jerry Buttimer, Kathleen Lynch, Padraig MacLochlainn, Alan Shatter, and Lucinda Creighton.