Michael Clifford: Time to press the reset button

A traumatised country will need an administration that has a sound mandate and the confidence to carry it out, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Time to press the reset button
Bags containing ballot papers are moved at the count centre at Nemo Rangers GAA club, Cork, last February. Now, 59 days on from the election, with the only prospective administration being a combination of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and an assortment of Independents, it is time to prepare for another election later in the year, writes Michael Clifford. Picture: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty

Fifty nine days and a lifetime of events since the general election and there’s no escaping the painful reality that it’s time to go to the people again. The prospective incoming administration is probably the last thing the country needs right now.

Barring a volte-face by one of the smaller parties, the next government will be made up of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and a bunch of Independents. Nobody voting on February 8 saw this coming.

Fianna Fáil had a miserable election. Fine Gael was soundly rejected.

Among the Independents expected to form a government are Verona Murphy, Noel Grealish, and Michael Lowry. The first two of those have wantonly and baselessly attacked asylum seekers in recent times.

Lowry, one of the wealthiest TDs in the Dáil, was heavily criticised by the Moriarty Tribunal over the awarding of the mobile phone licence to Denis O’Brien when Lowry was a government minister. Should such politicians be afforded considerable influence in an incoming government today?

Up until recently, there were hopes that one of the three smaller parties would join this coalition of the unwilling. That would have injected an element of change and the prospect of stability.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is surrounded by reporters as he arrived for the general election count at Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork. Picture: Yui Mok/PA
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is surrounded by reporters as he arrived for the general election count at Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork. Picture: Yui Mok/PA

If the three parties — the Greens, Labour, and the Social Democrats — had sufficient self-confidence, they could have banded together as a group with a broad agenda. Such a group would have made this a very different incoming government. But all three, separately, appear to have decided they’re better off avoiding responsibility in the current circumstances.

Of course, stability of sorts would be possible if either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil were to contemplate coalition with Sinn Féin, which won the largest popular vote in the election. But their refusal to do so is, to a great extent, based on the belief among cohorts in both parties, and including the irrespective leaders, that Sinn Féin is not a “normal” political party.

Last month, Sinn Féin’s director of finance, Des Mackin, outlined to the Irish Times how his party doesn’t want its elected representatives controlling Sinn Féin.

“We don’t want a parliamentary party running the organisation,” he told Colm Keena.

“We want to stay a party of activists. It’s a totally different model” — and one that nearly all political parties in western democracies wouldn’t consider normal.

Since the election, Sinn Féin representatives have claimed that their voters are being disenfranchised, but the other two parties also have obligations to their respective voters.

The outcome of the various impasses is a prospective unstable and unwanted government. That might be tolerable in a world where, according to all the parties in the election, there was €11bn to shape society and the economy over the coming five years. But no more.

Today, what is required is a government that can explain and bring along the people through what is expected to be a deep recession, possibly like no other. The current government-in-waiting would be starting with an almost insurmountable handicap in that regard.

Competing or alternative plans to negotiate the gathering storm need to be put before the electorate. This must be done under the steady eye of an independent electoral body, such as the Fiscal Advisory Council, which can verify or dismiss promises.

The hard facts softened with some attempt at vision are what the people need to hear. And then at least the difficult times can be faced under a leadership that is confident of the imprimatur of the electorate.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar shares a bag of popcorn with partner Matt Barrett at Phibblestown Community Centre in Dublin as counting began. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar shares a bag of popcorn with partner Matt Barrett at Phibblestown Community Centre in Dublin as counting began. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA

The election needs to take place as soon as possible, which may not be until September. Between now and then, a confidence and supply arrangement with an administration comprising the current ministers could be arranged.

This would provide space to get over the health crisis and pass legislation that is immediately required.

Quite possibly, the campaign would have to be curtailed in deference to lingering health concerns. But what might be lost in the laying on of hands and soft-focus palaver could be replaced with clear communication about the stark issues.

Sinn Féin should welcome the prospect. A shortage of candidates in February saw it leave behind up to 10 seats. That kind of vote next time around would see it well on the way to being the senior partner in any coalition.

Fianna Fáil may want to reassess its attitude to the Shinners. All over the world, what was regarded as normal in liberal democracies is being smashed. Maybe the apparent appetite for Sinn Féin’s brand of populist nationalism is washing away concerns about democratic norms in Fianna Fáil, which, above all else, is a party of pragmatism.

Fine Gael could plead for a second chance. Labour could project a new image under its new leader. And the Greens and Social Democrats might like to explain to voters under precisely what circumstances either would enter a government.

All that really matters is that a traumatised country is provided with an administration that has a sound mandate and the confidence to carry it out.

The vast majority of politicians, and parties, do not want an election.

Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being elected. Sinn Féin emerged as the party with the largest vote after February’s election. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being elected. Sinn Féin emerged as the party with the largest vote after February’s election. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Politicians, understandably, rarely do. But we are living in the time of an existential crisis. Get over it, lads, this one’s for the country.

The other reality is that, in today’s political culture, it’s fair to say that most, if not all, parties would prefer not to be in power over the next couple of years. Negotiating difficult times in government has never been as unfashionable. Mary Harney’s quote about the worst day in government being better than the best in opposition doesn’t seem to apply anymore.

In such a milieu, the perceived winners within the political culture in a new election may be those who dodge the bullet of power.

In 2008, the economy collapsed from a great height. Arguably, there should have been an election once the extent of the damage became apparent. Fianna Fáil, which was politically responsible for the catastrophe, didn’t have a mandate to govern a country it had wrecked.

In 2011, the Labour party hugely overpromised on how it would ease the pain. Fine Gael governed in a manner that divided rather than united. Have lessons been learned? Maybe.

This time around, the country needs to get going from a point where the government is strong and enjoys some degree of confidence from society at large. If you were starting out, you wouldn’t start from here. That’s why it is time to press the reset button.

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