FERGUS FINLAY: Dáil could lose its way without politicians of vision and principle

The bottom line is that we need, and will need, a parliament that works, writes Fergus Finlay

No matter what happens, the next Dáil will be a strange looking place. You can never predict the outcome of an election with certainty, but some things are already clear. For example, some of the best and most effective parliamentarians we’ve ever had will be missing, and there are serious question marks over the future of others.

You can accuse me of bias if you wish, but I strongly believe the Dáil will be considerably the poorer for the absence of three senior Labour figures – Eamon Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn, and Pat Rabbitte. Each of them, in his own way, has made a very particular mark on Irish politics, in addition to being a party leader.

Ruairi Quinn was an outstanding Finance Minister. If he had remained in office, I doubt very much if we would have seen the massive and gratuitous investments in property speculation that led to the banking collapse. Instead there would have been an entirely different emphasis on social development.

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But his achievements go back further than that. I can remember, for example, how brilliantly he managed the fractious and sometimes divisive campaign that elected Mary Robinson – smoothing over differences and rows and keeping a talented but strong-headed team pointing in one direction. In those two achievements alone – and there have been many more – he made a major contribution to modern Ireland.

Eamon Gilmore was one of the most effective leaders the Labour Party ever had in opposition, and led it to its greatest electoral triumph. No one who was there will ever forget some of the parliamentary moments in which he was a central participant – his decisive confrontation with John O’Donoghue, for example, or his clashes with Brian Cowen, in which he was clearly seen as the real leader of the opposition. He was unlucky in many respects in what happened after the election, and was haunted by some of the unnecessary aspects of the election campaign in 2011 – “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way” was a phrase he had difficulty living down. But he was the spark behind the marriage equality referendum, and that is surely an enduring legacy to be proud of.

To be honest, I find it hard to imagine a Dáil without Pat Rabbitte. In his early days he tortured the Labour Party, but after the merger he became not just a loyal member but an incredibly effective spokesperson. He had (and has, of course!) a complete mastery of debate, and there’s probably a book to be compiled of Rabbitte witticisms and putdowns. After one particularly boring and sanctimonious speech by Fianna Fáil Minister Michael Smith, Rabbitte described him as sounding like a monsignor speaking down a bad phone line from Medjugorje. There’s much more to Pat Rabbitte than the witticisms. Like his two colleagues he brought a depth of insight to Irish public life. They are all people you’d learn from, and all have huge leadership abilities. There are very few democratic political systems in the world in which Rabbitte, Gilmore and Quinn wouldn’t have risen to the top.

Another who will be missing – and sorely missed – from the next Dáil is Joe Higgins. I never found it possible to agree with Joe Higgins about anything, but he has always commanded respect. He is one of the small group of outsiders who has made an immeasurable impact on the life of the Dáil – and because that institution is such a club, making any kind of impact as an outsider is well-nigh impossible.

He did it often with wit – despite his frequently dour demeanour he has been one of the funniest parliamentarians we’ve ever had. But his campaigns are the things he’ll be remembered for. I particularly remember his fight for a group of Turkish construction workers employed (if that’s the word for what was virtually indentured slavery) on a public contract by a company called GAMA. In pursuing their basic rights, Higgins exposed the dirty underbelly of the Celtic Tiger. And he helped them to win – no mean achievement for a loner in politics.

But apart from the absence of these and possibly other key figures, it’s becoming harder and harder to see anything other than chaos in the next Dáil. And chaos, you’d have thought, is the last thing a country struggling to recover from years of austerity needs.

Tomorrow, apparently, another new “venture” is going to be announced. I heard someone on the radio over the weekend saying that there seem to be as many independent groupings as there are independents – couldn’t have put it better myself.

The thing about them (with the possible exception of Renua – remember them?) is that they all seem to want to survive and thrive in opposition. If they have one thing in common, it seems to be hatred of the whip system.

I’ve written before about how the use of the legislative whip in Ireland has become authoritarian in its implementation. There is no room for conscience and principle in some of the things government backbenchers have been forced to do, and it makes for lazy government that is almost never open to better ways of doing things.

But the complete absence of a whip is a recipe for incoherence, instability and incompetence. It simply isn’t possible for any government to sustain itself if it cannot rely on the support of its members for the crucial things. Every year there are votes in the Dáil which the government of the day must win if it is to survive. It doesn’t follow, of course, that the Government has to win every vote. But a government that cannot predict in advance that it can pass its budget or annual Estimates, or survive a motion of confidence, or pass major emergency or security legislation, is a government that can’t govern.

So when Shane Ross, for example, says that the core value of his grouping is that it’s perfectly ok to disagree, and that he would only consider supporting a government on a vote-by-vote basis, he is effectively ruling himself and his colleagues out of any meaningful role in the government of the country.

When Mick Wallace says, as he said on television recently, that he’d love to be Minister for Justice, but you’d have to sell your soul to be in government, he’s not just insulting people of principle who have served their country brilliantly in that and other ministerial roles, he’s also saying that the only way he can be true to whatever he believes in is to stay in opposition.

There are a lot of attractive and intelligent people serving on the opposition benches right now. They have ideas and policies that they say would change Ireland for the better. If the only thing they can offer us as a core value is the right to disagree with everyone else, rather than the obligation to negotiate with everyone else, they’re never going to be able to change anything.

The bottom line is that we need, and will need, a parliament that works. What’s on offer right now is a five-year circus – highly entertaining, no doubt, but potentially entirely destructive. If that’s the best a fractured and egocentric opposition have to offer, we need to look elsewhere.


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