Grand coalition is Martin’s chance - Fianna Fáil stepping up to the plate?

MICHEÁL MARTIN’S willingness to consider entering into coalition with Fine Gael indicates his growing confidence as Fianna Fáil party leader and his maturity in recognising that inconclusive election results are becoming the norm here.

More importantly, it suggests Fianna Fáil are prepared finally to accept shared responsibility for running the country, something they have avoided for more than 12 months.

The confidence-and-supply arrangement is an example of the exercise of power without responsibility by Fianna Fáil, and responsibility without power by Fine Gael.

Although it has allowed both parties to co-operate on big budgetary issues and has limited the impact of extreme far-left minority groupings, it is hardly sustainable as a long-term strategy, for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. It is also unstable and undemocratic. While the result of the 2016 general election has been characterised as an inconclusive mess, it is anything but. The majority of Irish people voted for two parties that occupy the centre of the political spectrum. Their choice should be respected and facilitated, not ignored or discounted.

Our report today reveals Mr Martin’s concerns that a grand coalition between the two main parties would allow Sinn Féin to become the main opposition, and his fears that, as he puts it, “the centre ground of Irish politics could be irreparably damaged in such a scenario”. That is, perhaps, too pessimistic a view. While such an arrangement would almost undoubtedly see Sinn Féin become the loudest voice of opposition in the Dáil, the party is still very much to the left of the political spectrum and the likelihood is that a grand coalition would solidify, rather than damage, the centre ground.

In any event, this is a time for political leaders to be courageous and to put the people, rather than their party, first. It is also time to consign the remnants of civil war politics to the history books and recognise that there is little between the two major parties. While their respective programmes for government suggest subtle differences on social and economic policies, in practice Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are indistinguishable.

Critics of grand coalitions point to Austria and Germany, arguing that such arrangements have allowed political extremes to strengthen and flourish in those countries. Yet, in Austria, it is the collapse, last May, of its coalition, and not the coalition itself, that resulted in the anti-EU Freedom Party emerging as power broker. In Germany, it has been Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, and not its tradition of coalitions, that has spurred on the far-right. A grand coalition makes more sense in Ireland than in almost any other European state, where such arrangements tend to be made between ideologically opposed political groupings. Coming together would not just enhance political and economic stability, but would enable a government with a clear majority to pursue difficult, but necessary, reforms.

Mr Martin says he is frustrated by lack of progress on important issues such as health and housing. This is his chance to do something about it.

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