Gerard Howlin: Democracy, Irish-style, takes off in a completely new direction

If the three parties agree to what is proposed, then the real crisis will come in October, writes Gerard Howlin
Gerard Howlin: Democracy, Irish-style, takes off in a completely new direction

If the three parties agree to what is proposed, then the real crisis will come in October, writes Gerard Howlin

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (left) and Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, share a joke during a break at the seven way RTE leaders debate at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus in Galway, Ireland. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (left) and Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, share a joke during a break at the seven way RTE leaders debate at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus in Galway, Ireland. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

IT IS over, bar the shouting. The votes are cast now, apart from a few stragglers whose postal ballot may not make it in time to be counted.

The results will be declared on Friday and on Saturday we may have a government. This round of government-making is concluding. Regardless of outcome, if any, the process is change-making.

The pre-eminence of parliamentary representatives has shifted to an extra-constitutional electoral college, comprising some TDs elected at the previous election, and members of their respective parties. It is unclear how this advances democracy.

However, it shifts power, and it is now a new normal. General elections were usually, but not always, decisive events. As politics fragments and the power of the membership within parties increases, the internal vote has become the prism for policy choices and the final arbitrator of the outcome. Ireland is now governed differently.

Comedy and humour blossomed too. The piousness, the plaintive earnestness, the unmistakable clarion call of a peculiarly middle-class demagoguery demanding the slap of firm government has been truly rib-tickling. Pseudo leftish, sort-of pseudo-liberal, pseudo cream as public funds provided with someone else’s money for whatever ails them, they excelled themselves.

I first thought it was something new. But no. It was somehow familiar. It was the honeycomb itself of too-sweet-to-be-wholesome. Served as condescension, and intended to be eaten as humble pie, it was a demand that the Greens straighten themselves out, form an orderly queue, and govern as required for now.

The reasons seem to have been — and some of the commentary was so emotional as not to be completely cogent — that this planned-for government was the least worst that could be conjured. Another, but less cogent plea, was that this is the only one that could be at all.

Which brings me to the colourful finale of a threatened and awful crisis, if what was required was not delivered forthwith. It was played as a reverse protection racket, a gouging of Greta Thunberg. The remarkable thing is that it worked to a significant, perhaps decisive, extent. Underpinning the radicalism of the Greens is the ballast of being middle-class. Some of them I think, foolishly took it all to heart. There is no place in politics for anyone without a deep indifference towards the media. Never fall out with them, never tell an untruth but never, ever be influenced by them. It’s just noise and attention-seeking, said he.

Regardless of the result, one thing that won’t happen on Friday is a crisis of any sort. The spectre is the make-believe that no other government is possible, when one clearly is, and that time has run out, which is nonsense from people who have skilfully run down the clock. If the three parties agree to what is proposed then the real crisis will come in October when an almost entirely uncosted, unfunded programme for government faces reality.

However, this is not yet.

What will unfold on Saturday if a government is formed is a lot of personal drama for people who have given their lives to the most intense, public, and uncertain profession of politics. For Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin to become taoiseach would be an astonishing achievement. There is the fact of still being in the Dáil 31 years after he was first elected, still on the ‘right’ side of 60, and still in contention. There was the electoral armageddon of 2011, a moment after which it was uncertain whether Fianna Fáil could survive.

Nine years later, after a long recovery, there was a well-based expectation of building on success in 2016, overtaking Fine Gael in seat numbers and being the larger part of a larger political centre.

Instead, voters gave Sinn Féin a surge on February 8. The political centre was further diminished.

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are smaller parties, not larger. The Greens got a significant boost too.

Green Party candidates Catherine Martin Deputy leader Eamon Ryan Leader during the Green Party general election campaign launch on Merrion Square,Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Green Party candidates Catherine Martin Deputy leader Eamon Ryan Leader during the Green Party general election campaign launch on Merrion Square,Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Its 12 seats make up the difference for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined getting into government. This is not the end of Civil War politics. That effectively ended with the outbreak of the Troubles.

With the exception of Charlie Haughey opportunistically going offside over the Anglo-Irish Agreement there has been a shared analysis on the national question since. That was predicated on de facto recognition of Northern Ireland, when Seán Lemass visited Stormont in 1965. Everything since, was karaoke singing old songs.

No, if this government happens, it is not the end of Civil War politics, it is its afterlife. The drama attending the formation of this government will be small ones, principally the elation of ministerial appointment and disappointment. There will be widespread disappointment in Fine Gael as a swathe of ministers are sent to the backbenches. For Leo Varadkar, it will be his night of the long knives. For Martin, he must explain a painful reality to several who have been his acolytes and train-bearers. Thus far can they come but no further.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life,” so Jeremy Thorpe quipped across the House of Commons to Harold Macmillan after the political bloodbath that gave the original night its memorable name. Fianna Fáil was first steadied and then steered in the direction it travelled since February 8 partly on the basis of political ambitions, which will not be fulfilled. Sic transit gloria mundi.

What will matter ultimately is not whether this government is actually formed, it is what an eventual government can do to deal with the triple crises of Covid-19, Brexit, and recession.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin -left- and Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, share a joke during a break at the seven way RTE leaders debate at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus in Galway, Ireland. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin -left- and Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, share a joke during a break at the seven way RTE leaders debate at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus in Galway, Ireland. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

WITH some exceptions, the programme for government is praiseworthy. Apart from cycleways and investment in walking, little is specifically funded, however. It makes the Labour party’s pre-election, Tesco- style ad in 2011 seem reticent in its promises, by comparison.

Economically, laudable Green aspirations aside, it is the continuation by bicycle of a watery version of the Fine Gael policies, supported by Fianna Fáil, in place since 2011. It is a lemonade version of Keynesian economics. What is promised cannot be delivered.

If there is a crisis coming, it will be brought on by the lack of fortitude and fecklessness of a politics that cannot prioritise and will not face up to the reality that choices must be made. There cannot be recession without austerity, and there is no way forward for our country towards better times, without hard decisions. The miasma that has been created, unless arrested by reality on Friday, will by Saturday become unfolding disillusion.

First, that will be felt intimately by those who sponsored this but have been disowned by their own. Then it will be felt more intimately still by us, first as disillusion and then as blight. It is then that they will come again, commentating and full of canker, said he.

If the three parties agree to what is proposed, then the real crisis will come in October

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