Fergus Finlay: If a grand coalition collapses, it will usher in a decade of Sinn Féin

I've no idea what Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin were trying to achieve at the start of their election campaigns, or even as the seats were being counted.

Fergus Finlay: If a grand coalition collapses, it will usher in a decade of Sinn Féin

I've no idea what Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin were trying to achieve at the start of their election campaigns, or even as the seats were being counted.

But along the way, they’ve both eliminated the logical — some would argue the most democratic — outcome of the election.

But because they are both being so categoric about ruling out a coalition with Sinn Féin and Mary Lou McDonald, they’re stuck with each other now.

They may, of course, be calculating that since the election, enough spectres have been raised about Sinn Féin and its murky past that it might even be worth chancing another tussle with the electorate.

I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know how well Sinn Féin would do a second time around, but if either Varadkar or Martin forces the country to go at it again, they’ll be even more severely punished.

They’re going to have to try to do something that has never been done in Irish politics. It will be a first in all sorts of ways.

Not only will it be the first time that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have ever served in government together, it will also be the first time in the history of Irish elections that two of the losers will have formed a government, while the winner went on to lead the opposition.

So, if Varadkar and Martin decide to go to any lengths to keep Sinn Féin out of power, they’d better make it work. Because if they demonstrate over the next year or so that they are both incapable of getting on with each other — and with the Green Party, because they’ll have to make them a major player, too — they will be ushering in a decade of Mary Lou in government.

The way to make such a “grand coalition” work is to make it different. Make it look and feel different, and give it a sense of focus like no government has had in the past.

One way of doing that is to rearrange and refocus government departments.

The current crisis in housing, for example, needs a dedicated department with a full cabinet minister and a four-year brief.

Back in the day, a Labour minister, Jimmy Tully, was made minister for local government (that’s what it was called then). On his first day, he told his officials that they were to run the department, because he was going to build houses.

The result of his single-minded determination was a massive increase in public housing all over the country, and the virtual elimination of local authority housing lists. He insisted on quality, which was a great strength, although he also favoured single rural cottages (his background was as a trade union official representing rural workers).

Although the record was mixed, he showed what can be done by a singular focus on one outcome. Similar action needs to be taken and a standalone Department of Housing separated out.

What’s more, it needs to be given real power to knock heads together, and to end the myriad bureaucratic rows that are tying up development land owned by Nama and other agencies.

It needs to have the power, for instance, to oblige companies such as Dublin Bus to vacate premises like the massive parking lot in Donnybrook which occupies enough space for at least 600 houses and apartments.

It needs to be enabled and resourced to provide community facilities and safe play areas in new housing projects. It needs to lead a referendum to balance property rights with a right to affordable and decent housing.

Sadly, we won’t solve the problems in healthcare by focus alone, as essential as that is. According to the OECD (OECD Health at a Glance Report, 2019), there are, on average, 4.7 hospital beds for every 1,000 people across all their member countries.

In Ireland, however, the number of beds is three, well below the average. So, we don’t have enough beds, and that has been the case since the middle of the 1980s.

In fact, our bed numbers have failed to keep up with either the growth in our population or the ageing of our population.

One of the consequences is that the occupancy rate of Irish hospital beds is the highest by far in the OECD, at 95%; the OECD average is just over 75%.

So there are always going to be waiting lists for treatment, and that lack of access to hospital beds is always going to be the reason emergency departments are overcrowded. Only two solutions are possible: Build and staff more beds, or get more people out of hospital. Sláintecare will need a mix of both.

But if Sláintecare is to happen, it needs a complete refocus of public policy. There is a strong argument for changing the minister for health into the minister for Slaintecare.

And then allow it to really focus, by taking away responsibility for people who aren’t sick. The Department of Health has responsibility, now, for a huge number of people it is essentially neglecting because of the daily crisis in healthcare: Elderly people; people with disabilities; people whose wellbeing, as opposed to their health, needs attention and support.

I would create two new departments: a Department of Disability and Mental Health, and a Department of Community Services to deliver better outcomes in social care.

Mental health has become not the Cinderella, but the orphan, of the health system. It has been robbed of resources, structures, and finance in recent years, and huge numbers of people are suffering as a result.

And there is an astonishing amount of unfinished business that every day affects people who have a disability.

To take just one example: the outgoing government, last year, trumpeted its decision to raise the public sector target of employment from 3% to 6%.

But it failed to pass the necessary piece of one-line legislation. As a result, the figures will get worse this year, in an economy that boasts about full employment.

I know we’ve had a junior minister for disabilities for a long time now. But without the clout of a full minister and a dedicated budget, we will continue to talk the talk. Real change requires full authority and accountability.

Combining the two neglected areas of disability and mental health under a full cabinet minister is the key.

These are only some suggestions. I have more, and I’m available for free consultation. I even know how to merge some of the existingdepartments to deal with the constitutional limit of 15 cabinet ministers.

The bottom line is that Varadkar and Martin will have to make this new experiment work. They won’t do it by adopting the stale measures of the past. If they don’t really get stuck into solving problems, they’re not going to last very long. And they’ll simply make the ground more fertile for the people they seem to fear most.

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