Forming a government - Two leaders must make a deal or quit

AS the explosive events that led to the 1970 arms trial begin to fade from living memory — most of the central players are dead, and many of today’s Dáil deputies had not been born then — it may be that a lesson offered by that seditious challenge to constitutional politics is relevant.

As well as uncovering dishonesty at every level of government, our Guy Fawkes moment showed that as an organisation evolves it may have to leave behind individuals and principles that once seemed its very heartbeat. The future and the past may not have the same priorities or obligations. The choice becomes simple — languish in one or embrace the other.

That trial was followed by an infamous Fianna Fáil 1971 ard fheis when the “bully boys” on the party’s republican wing tried exert decisive influence. They provoked an uncompromising rebuff from then Minister for External Affairs and later president Paddy Hillery: “If you want a fight you can have it ... You can have Boland but you can’t have Fianna Fáil.” A fork in the road had been reached, and the Republican Party shed a skin, and Kevin Boland, to live in a new, changing world. Boland went on to establish Aontacht Éireann but was not re-elected to the Dáil. Oblivion and irrelevance were the rewards for his extremism.

That principle applies equally to Fine Gael.

It once epitomised big-farmer, law-library Brahmanism, a characteristic that condemned the party to opposition for decades. A high point of that disdain, probably unsurpassed, was James Dillon’s dismissal of de Valera’s taunting about his pro-British position during WWII: “My ancestors fought for Ireland ... while yours were banging banjos and bartering budgies in the backstreets of Barcelona.”

Today, as Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin struggle to find the confidence or the moral courage of real, game-changing leadership, and bring Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to an understanding that will offer secure, capable, and moderate government for the next few years it seems time to again isolate today’s Bolands and entrenched Brahmins.

Fianna Fáil may worry about defection after defection — particularly to Sinn Féin — if an alliance is agreed. But, as the late Brian Lenihan said when he spoke on the possibility at Béal na Bláth almost six years ago: “So what?” Just as Fianna Fáil survived the loss of Boland and Neil Blaney — indeed the party thrived without their extremism — they would survive any defection of discontented dinosaurs provoked by an unprecedented alliance with Fine Gael.

The same principle, again, applies to Fine Gael.

That party’s grandee wing, and others within it anxious for change, may have an almost unshakeable distrust of Fianna Fáil but, just as Micheál Martin must confront his refusenik grassroots — who, he suggests, are holding our political process to ransom — they must step out of their comfort zone. It is more than 40 days since the electorate gave its verdict decision. If Mr Kenny and Mr Martin cannot transform that mandate into a government, then they must both resign as party leaders and let another generation try to do what is obvious — and long before another election is called.

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