Noel Dempsey looks at the options open in terms of forming a government and how Fianna Fáil can live up to its election promises
FOR the first time ever a political party in Ireland is being castigated for actually keeping its promises.
Even more remarkable, the party being castigated is Fianna Fáil. The only thing that is unsurprising about it all are the sources of the criticisms. Many of those who were dancing on its political grave in 2011 are now professing a great concern for the party for failing to break its promises.
We are now reaching endgame and there has been unity and strength shown by Fianna Fáil at all levels, but that could change, especially if the grassroots do not get their chance to have their say before Fianna Fáil finalises its position.
It is important to note that the motion passed a few years ago stated “In any prospective coalition scenario, a draft programme for Government must be put before a special Árd Fheis for adoption or rejection. Those voting members attending shall vote. A simple majority is required.”
It is clear from this motion that there is no obligation on the party hierarchy to call a special Árd Fheis to endorse what they appear to be doing now, deciding to support a minority Fine Gael Government.
The question that arises though is: Are they wise to make such a decision without involving their members?
Presumably, any decision to support a minority Fine Gael government will involve Fianna Fáil getting some policy commitments from them even if they have no say in the overall Programme for Government.
More importantly, the endorsement of the membership should be obtained for what amounts to a major volte face in relation to the oft-repeated commitment to remove Fine Gael from office.
While many members can understand the decision to decline the offer of a so-called partnership Government which would keep Fine Gael in power, someone needs to explain to the grassroots the logic of Fianna Fáil putting themselves in a position where they are likely to be keeping them in office with only limited control on what they do.
A lot of time has been wasted over the past six weeks speculating on what or what might not be acceptable to the grassroots without anybody in authority in the party actually laying out what the options really are. There is an onus on the party hierarchy to definitively establish what is or what is not acceptable to the membership before too much more time elapses. It is not difficult to do this and it will delay nothing. There is little likelihood that the talks between the various groups will be finalised satisfactorily this Thursday.
The time when people “could look into their own hearts” to make decisions like this is long gone. In the “new politics” Fianna Fáil has embraced consultation and discussion with members. This is vitally important to maintain the momentum built up over the past five years.
It would be possible, within a matter of a few days, for Fianna Fáil to consult with its membership. There are 43 deputies and 40 constituencies so it would be easy to arrange a meeting of members in each constituency with an Oireachtas member present to discuss and explain the options. Those options are now straightforward:
A minority Government led by Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil (with willing Independents).
A partnership where the two parties (with willing Independents).
Obviously the Fianna Fáil minority Government option will be most favoured by Fianna Fáil members, and now seems to be back on the table, despite Enda Kenny’s earlier dismissal.
Any minority Government led by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael will require a binding agreement between the parties for at least three years which deals with budgetary matters, major policy areas, and no confidence motions. That, presumably, is the aim of current talks.
The level of distrust between the parties seem to be such that Fine Gael is unlikely to sign up to a pig in the poke, nod and a wink, “you will be all right lads, we’ll look after you”, from Fianna Fáil for this option.
The difficulty for Fianna Fáil in this type of arrangement is that they end up with a lot of the responsibility and blame for decisions taken without having the final say in them. It will give Sinn Féin and others the opportunity to constantly attack the decisions of the ‘establishment’ parties.
Deciding to take this option could be seen by Fianna Fáil members as making a nonsense of the principled stance Fianna Fáil has reiterated again and again, that they sought and got a mandate to remove Fine Gael from office.
Their rejection of the offer of a full partnership Government from Fine Gael was based on the assertion that they could not go back on their commitment to remove the Government from office. How does supporting a Fine Gael minority Government fulfill that commitment?
The ‘national interest’ argument is stronger for the partnership model than a shaky minority Government.
The third option of a partnership Government with Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Independents with a change of Cabinet half way through is one which both parties should now consider.
All seem to agree that the national interest is best served by having a stable five-year Government. All parties and Independents engaged in the discussions over the past weeks have been working towards that end.
It is now time for all of them to take the final steps to give effect to that in a solution which will allow them to maintain their individuality and independence, while ensuring stable Government.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would lead the Government for two and a half years each over the five-year term.
The arrangements outlined above for the support of a minority Government would apply to this arrangement also.
For Fianna Fáil members, it means the party is honouring its commitment to remove Fine Gael from office although not as quickly as they hoped.
Fine Gael as the largest party retains power for a period of time but, again, they respect the wishes of the electorate as expressed in the drubbing the Government parties received at the hands of the electorate.
It is a different solution but the situation we find ourselves in, post the election, is unique and unusual. It requires a fresh approach by everybody.
We have heard a lot about “new politics” over the past six weeks. To an extent this is similar to the guff we heard about a “democratic revolution” after the 2011 election, a lot of theory but absolutely nothing to show for it in practice.
The difference this time is that the electorate have called the politicians bluff by giving them a very complicated election result which in turn makes it necessary to adopt new approaches and embrace “new politics”.
How the politicians respond to these challenges will decide whether the politicians alienate themselves further from their voters or confirm for them that the leopard can indeed change its spots.
Noel Dempsey served as a minister in three Fianna Fáil-led governments.
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