Forming the next Government: Parties must be open on partnerships

IT’S almost five years to the day since the late Finance Minister Brian Lenihan spoke at the annual Michael Collins commemoration at Béal na Bláth. At that time he was asked if he thought Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael might ever come together and if Fianna Fáil, so recently eviscerated at the polls, might survive such an unprecedented partnership

“So what if they don’t,” he replied, “as long as it’s the best thing for the country.” Even though it was this openness and generosity that made Mr Lenihan such a popular figure, none of his senior party colleagues rushed to support his declaration, publicly at least. Fine Gael’s officer class hardly rushed to embrace the idea either.

Mr Lenihan’s successor in Fianna Fáil, finance spokesman Michael McGrath, returned to that theme in recent days when he suggested it would be arrogant of Fianna Fáil to dismiss the possibility of being the junior partner in a coalition. Mr McGrath’s contribution is pragmatic because opinion polls predict the next Dáil will be unusually divided and the establishment of a Government will be particularly difficult. Nevertheless, some of his colleagues remain steadfastly opposed to a relationship with Fine Gael. Others, despite assurances to the contrary from party leader Micheál Martin, flirt with the idea of an alliance with Sinn Féin.

Tánaiste Joan Burton joined that conversation at the weekend when it was announced that she will ask Labour parliamentarians to agree to a vote transfer pact with Fine Gael when the parliamentary party meets in a pre-Dáil session next month. Labour sources said Ms Burton would only ask for approval for a pact but not a statement of common policy aims. Senior figures in both coalition parties have raised the prospect of co-operation to maximise their chances of being returned to power.

As the election approaches, the extravagance of each party’s promises will be matched only by the reticence of all parties to be clear, to commit to a certain course of action in a certain set of circumstances. It may be naive, in the tattered terms of Irish politics at least, where “the most sophisticated electorate in the world” is patronised and codded with equal abandon to expect that kind of transparency, the kind of transparency that might restore popular support to our discredited political system, but why should the electorate settle for anything less? Why should we be asked to vote for a pig in a poke? Why should we trust the political culture that has disappointed on so many fronts?

The election campaign is already under way but not one voter in the country can be sure what voting for a particular party might help create or who the party of their choice might conspire with to try to form a government. This is as anti-democratic as it is wrong and the only people to benefit are the backroom powerbrokers whose commitment to real and transparent democracy is tenuous at best. It is impossible to be absolute in these matters but it is not unreasonable to expect that a vote for X will not be used to give power to Y. Any party that refuses to be open about who it considers a potential partner must be viewed in the most suspicious light.


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