Answers to political stalemate may lie in the past

The current political stalemate is not unique, suggests Ryle Dwyer, who argues the past may provide the solution.

Answers to political stalemate may lie in the past

IN 1987, when there was no likely governmental arrangement apparent, the outgoing taoiseach Garret FitzGerald announced that Fine Gael would not attempt to bring down a minority Fianna Fáil government led by Charles Haughey, if it introduced the necessary corrective measures for the economy. Alan Dukes then pursued that policy after he was elected leader of Fine Gael.

This approach became known as the Tallaght Strategy. The new government turned out to be very effective and popular over the next couple of years.

Haughey “never appeared politically so secure in the leadership of his party, or in the high office he occupies,” Stephen Collins noted in The Sunday Press at the beginning of 1989: “His government’s dazzling performance on the economy has seen five-year targets achieved in just two with the national debt finally stabilised.”

In late 1988, Fine Gael offered to negotiate a formal economic accord with the government to provide backing on agreed legislation. This offer of co-operation was unprecedented between the two parties, but Haughey showed no interest.

Instead, he called a general election in 1989. He gave two reasons — the danger that the government would be defeated on the health budget, and the need for more political stability with Ireland about to take over the presidency of the European Community at the beginning of 1990.

Neither of the reasons was convincing. A factor that may well have weighed heavily on Haughey was the impending scandal over Iraq not meeting beef payments for which the Irish government had provided insurance coverage.

Many suspected he called the election to shake off the opposition shackles that were forcing him to pursue responsible policies. It seemed like a desperate gamble for an overall majority.

The general election was seen as unnecessary, and Fianna Fáil duly lost four seats, while Fine Gael gained five. If Fine Gael were to persist in supporting the government Alan Dukes now insisted on a coalition with Fianna Fáil in which the cabinet seats would be shared equally and the office of Taoiseach would rotate between the leaders.

A rotating leadership arrangement had worked in Israel when the two major parties came to together in a unity government that was formed after an inconclusive general election in 1982. Simon Peres became prime minister for two years and he was followed Yitzhak Shimir two years later.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 election, Haughey was under intense internal political pressure for having called an unnecessary general election. He might well have agreed to such a pact with Fine Gael in order to retain power for another two years, but the Progressive Democrats (PDs) had the number of seats that Fianna Fáil needed to form a majority government.

The PDs had no difficulty parking their hostility towards Haughey, once they saw the chance of power. They propped him up in a coalition that the late Albert Reynolds called “a temporary little arrangement”.

The Labour Party enjoyed a spectacular performance in the next general election in 1992 under the leadership of Dick Spring. The so-called “Spring Tide” swept the party to what was then its record total of 33 seats.

Early in the campaign, Spring had announced that he would be looking for an agreement to rotate the office of Taoiseach, as the Labour Party’s price for going into government with any other party. This certainly caught the media’s attention.

Having backed Fine Gael in government on five different occasions, Labour supporters believed it was not unreasonable to ask Fine Gael for a share of the top spot, especially when the polls indicated that Spring was by far the most popular of all the party leaders. During the final week of the election campaign, he enjoyed a favourable rating of 67%, compared to Fine Gael’s John Bruton with 31%, and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds with only 25%.

As it turned out, however, Fine Gael and Labour did not have enough votes to form a coalition government on their own. They needed the support of the PDs with their six seats, but the PDs were almost toxic in the eyes of many Labour deputies. In the circumstances, the Labour Party preferred to coalesce with Fianna Fáil.

Some people initially dismissed that idea as unthinkable and unprecedented, but Fianna Fáil had once offered to back the Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson for the top job in 1927. This was just days after Éamon de Valera led Fianna Fáil into the Dáil for the first time.

De Valera agreed to what was being called the Triple Alliance for the lifetime of that Dáil. Fianna Fáil would back a minority government led by Labour with the support of the National League Party, which was the remnants of the old Irish Parliamentary Party of pre-independence days. In return, the government would abolish the detested Treaty-oath. Cumann na nGaedheal believed that Johnson had the necessary votes to win on August 16, 1927, but one of the National League members — John Jinks of Sligo — walked out of Leinster House just before the vote. As a result the no confidence motion in WT Cosgrave’s government ended in a tie, and the Speaker rescued the government by opposing the motion.

The fifth Dáil then adjourned for the summer recess, and never met again. It was the shortest Dáil in history. During the recess Cosgrave called a general election and proceeded to win enough seats to form a stable government.

Labour repaid Fianna Fáil by backing de Valera’s successful bid to form a minority government in 1932. As a result nobody should really have been surprised that Labour could revert to supporting Fianna Fáil in 1992, in view of the way the numbers stacked up.

Political opportunity and political necessity have been powerful influences for changing political attitudes. Surely Fianna Fáil owes it to the country and to Fine Gael by following the example of the Tallaght Strategy and backing a Fine Gael minority government in the national interest.

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