FERGUS FINLAY: An independent chair could help bring parties closer to realistic deal

Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin

Whatever Enda Kenny and Michéal Martin feel about each other personally must be put aside to deal with the country, writes Fergus Finlay.

I’m not in a position to criticise what seems like an inordinate delay in forming a government. I’ve been involved in this process before, and on one occasion, back in 1992, it took 48 days. So I know some of the issues and some of the sensitivities involved.

And I don’t, on this occasion, carry a torch for any of the parties engaged in the process. I think both of the main party leaders have played the deck of cards they were dealt as well as they can, and both have a legitimate interest in trying to negotiate the most advantageous outcome from this process. However, neither Enda Kenny nor Micheál Martin has (so far anyway) betrayed any sense that they want to put party before country, and they are due respect for that.

So, the only “skin in the game” I have is as a citizen. We need a new government, and we need it urgently. There are pressing things to be addressed, and one immediate crisis – the crisis of family homelessness. There has been a distinct failure of imagination, and indeed compassion, in the Dáil about the need to take action on the homelessness crisis, whether or not we have a government.

An independent chair could help bring parties closer to realistic deal

But as a general rule, I’ve always believed that if you have to choose between doing a thing fast and doing it right, you’re always better off to try and do it right. If it takes another couple of weeks to put a government in place that has a reasonable chance of dealing with the main issues, let’s give them the time.

But I am going to offer them a bit of advice. Actually, three bits of advice. It’s offered in good faith, and it’s based on (sometimes bitter!) experience.

First, get an independent chair for the process. It has always struck me as remarkable that this is almost the only conflict resolution exercise anyone can think of when it’s not considered advisable to have someone in charge who can corral the difficult personalities, marshal the issues, keep an agenda going in a reasonably straight line, and be trusted by all sides. We don’t solve industrial relations disputes, we don’t run organisations, and we don’t try to make peace without the help of someone independent, skilled and disinterested. For some reason, we think the immensely complex task of forming a government can be done without that outside help.

There’ve been many times in the past when I’ve realised that having access to an independent chair would have made political life a lot more manageable – if only to have recourse to when things start to go wrong.

I heard my fellow columnist Alison O’Connor suggest on the radio the other day that if there were to be an independent chair it would need to be George Mitchell. She was, I think, half joking. For my money there’d be nobody better in Ireland for a task like this than David Begg. I know he’s busy doing all sorts at the moment, like running for the Senate (to which he would be a remarkable addition) and (I’d better declare my interest) chairing the organisation I work for — so he’s my boss, in a way.

David Begg
David Begg

So he won’t thank me for suggesting him. But he has both the skills and the experience to tackle even a job as complex as enabling Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to work together. They would both know him and trust him, and there’d be little doubt that at the end of the process there would be, if not an agreement, at least a very clear understanding of all the issues at stake.

My second bit of advice would be to work hardest of all on the issue of trust. Whether it’s a coalition government or one party supporting the other, trust between principals is the key. And that, incidentally, extends to the Independents who are essential to the process.

There used to be a cynical adage that described the honest politician as the one who, when he’s bought, stays bought. I’ve never bought that – trust always has to be a two-way process. We all know the famous incidences of trust bringing down coalition governments in Ireland, but the issue goes deeper than that.

For example, back in the late 1980s Alan Dukes made a very large gesture of trust when he announced the Tallaght strategy, and enabled a then minority government to make hard decisions about the economy. That trust wasn’t reciprocated by the leader of the government, Charles Haughey, who expected Fine Gael to support him whatever decision he made, and Dukes’ act of patriotism ended up damaging himself.

Charles Haughey
Charles Haughey

Trust, of course, doesn’t mean ‘like’. I don’t know whether Micheál Martin actively dislikes Enda Kenny, or whether that’s just for show. It doesn’t matter. What matters is if the two men agreed to work together in whatever capacity, they undertake to work as hard as possible to communicate with each other, frequently and honestly. They must try as hard as possible never to surprise each other, or dump on each other gratuitously.

Governments can govern ambitiously, and oppositions can oppose trenchantly, while maintaining personal respect. That’s good for politics at any time, but in the current delicate balance, it’s essential.

The third bit of advice is crucial. Anticipate, prepare, share.

I remember participating in the development of a government in the 1980s that was greeted with profound shocks the day it took office, because it wasn’t given anything like adequate or true information about the state of the finances.

And I remember going to work for a government in the early 1990s that spent every ounce of energy in its first weeks in office dealing with Ireland’s last great currency crisis, when interest rates went through the roof and the country teetered on the brink of an existential crisis.

You can’t anticipate everything, but if the process starting now is to build any kind of a foundation, it has to be based at least on an open and shared analysis of the state of things. Before priorities can be agreed (as they will have to be) there has to be a broad sense of agreement on what’s likely to go wrong.

And here’s one last bit of advice. I don’t know who’s going to be Taoiseach at the end of all this, but whoever it is, there’s only one way for this to work out right. They need to embrace it. Because of the way things are, the next government will have little choice but to be the most accountable and transparent in the history of the state.

They all seem to be worried about being hostage to whoever is in opposition, or about the plug being pulled at whenever it serves a party interest. Nonsense. Whoever is elected Taoiseach will be lucky to get it, and they’ve only one resolution to make.

If they set out to be the best Taoiseach they can be, and to lead a government that’s open, honest and responsive, it will be a foolish opposition that will pull them down. Sure, it’s a challenge. But I can’t think of a more exciting one.

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