FERGUS FINLAY: Fine Gael’s promised ‘new politics’ may be a coalition with Fianna Fáil

WHERE did it all go wrong? The government elected with the largest majority in the history of the State hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of being re-elected.

The next election will finally see the most fundamental realignment of Irish politics imaginable.

Of course, all that could change. The general election is not far short of two years away. An awful lot can happen. But that requires two things: a full economic recovery, and a major ‘reset’ of this government’s programme, promise, and skills. The tentative economic recovery is not guaranteed to last, nor to be strong enough to deliver a real political recovery in its wake. The necessary reset seems beyond the reach of the Government.

Back to the question. Where did it all go wrong? Immediately after being elected, the Government was presented with a massive document by the Department of Finance. It was intended as a briefing, but was actually a set of the direst prognostications. If you had to sum it up in two words, those words would be (sorry about this) “we’re f***ed”.

It forced the Government into a simple strategy, based on three main prongs. First, a tacit agreement to stick together through thick and thin. That was the only way, faced with such a mess, to have any hope of lasting the full term.

Second, hope and pray that a three-year programme of austerity would help to balance the books. Balance that with whatever relief you could get on the debt, from wherever you could get it.

Then, maybe, just maybe, you might begin to see enough economic growth to persuade people that the approach had been worthwhile.

The final prong was new politics. This was the government that would do business in a new way. It would transform, illuminate, refresh, refurbish, reform, modernise, include. The programme for government was full of it. A government different in character from anything that had gone before. A parliament that would hold government to account, really connect with the people.

Then, Kevin Cardiff, the man who had presented the Government with the huge document I mentioned earlier, and who had helped to steer the previous government into the bank guarantee and the bail-out, had to be found a job. (Nobody seemed to wonder why).

So he was bulldozed into a lucrative European sinecure, and has never been heard of since. The Labour MEP who opposed that move, Nessa Childers, was bulldozed out of her party. She has been heard of since.

Not too long after that, Róisín Shortall, the junior minister in health, had a disagreement with her minister, James Reilly, over what she saw as political stroke-pulling. Not only were her allegations not taken seriously, she was isolated, as one member after another went on the airwaves to declare their full support for the health minister. They stuck together through thick and thin, and established that the new politics was the same as the old politics.

It reached its nadir in the whistleblower affair. A new politics would take whistleblowers seriously. It wouldn’t stand by in silence, while they were called disgusting by their senior colleagues. It would ensure that then Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, investigate serious allegations even-handedly, rather than act as judge and jury in dismissing them out of hand. The new politics died in the whistleblower affair, and will have to be entirely reborn if it is to mean anything.

And then, just as the only surviving element of the strategy — the promise of economic growth — seemed to be showing some signs of life, they appeared to lose their way entirely. No-one would have wanted the callous and heartless outcomes we have all seen in the last few months — they were just powerless to stop them in their tracks. The medical card fiasco was a classic example of a government that had entirely abandoned its political skills. Unless, of course, you count the rehabilitation of Fianna Fáil among the Government’s achievements.

And that’s where we are now. If you apply the local election results, on a straight arithmetical basis, to the next general election (assuming things get neither better nor worse for the Government in the meantime), Fianna Fáil will have between 40 and 50 seats in the next Dáil. Fine Gael will have around the same. Sinn Féin will have around 25. There will be a lot more independents, and a lot less Labour. Labour will be fighting for its survival, rather than for seats at the Cabinet table.

Four possible scenarios exist for the formation of a government on these figures. A minority Fine Gael/Sinn Féin government, with the support of independents and maybe a rump of Labour. A minority Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin government, with similar back-up. A government led by either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, supported by more or less every unattached deputy. Such a government might have a majority, but it would be the most chaotic in the history of the State.

ON THE basis of the figures as we know them now, there is only one government that can command a working majority after the next election. If those figures still pertain, (and, of course, that’s a big if) there is finally a real prospect that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will come together to give the country stable government for a further five years.

Nothing divides them ideologically, although there remain deep divisions of tradition, culture, and personality. A Fianna Fáil tánaiste to a Fine Gael taoiseach — or vice versa — will take some swallowing. The historical icons of both parties will spin in their graves for all time. But if it’s the only realistic alternative, don’t rule it out. The following five years could then see the beginnings of a real alignment. Just as Fine Gael couldn’t possibly see itself working with Democratic Left in 1992, and then welcomed them into government in 1994, parties of the left who vigorously oppose each other now could start working together in opposition from 2016 on.

By 2020, there could be a strong, united left-wing alternative to the FF/FG government, hatchets buried, history forgotten, and new alliances forged. Sinn Féin and Labour could easily come together, in that atmosphere, to present a real and solid alternative to a conservative government.

It might sound like an implausible scenario right now. But, actually, the results of our most recent election could be a set of paving stones for a future politics in Ireland that would finally resemble the politics of the rest of Europe. It wouldn’t be easy, but the logic of the alternative could well be inescapable. That would be new politics — perhaps not what the Government meant when it made the promise, but, actually, something to look forward to. Fifty years after the original slogan about the 1970s was coined, the 2020s could be socialist!

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