EUROPE’S monarchies were adept, until World War I at least, at clinging to power — or extending it — by any means possible. Murder — poisoning was a favourite — and marriage were common tactics. Marriages often bordered on the incestuous but such delicacies were easily overlooked in the pursuit of territory or the consolidation of power.
The Habsburgs were so very focussed on territorial acquisition through inheritance that the habit was expressed as a mission statement: Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube! (‘Let others wage war. You, happy Austria, marry!’) The marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten (born a Prince of Greece and Denmark) in 1947 was not arranged but it is a modern example of dynasties coming together.
The principle of a beneficial union, unlike many of old Europe’s monarchies, is alive and well in politics today but we call it a coalition rather than an arranged marriage. And today the matchmakers of all Irish political parties are busy calculating possibility, identifying opportunity and ensuring that lines of communication between each other are open and working well. Each is as focussed as the other on the road to power — and ultimately they are not particularly bothered about who they might have to share the taxi with.
It is certain too that when they and their colleagues, in a few weeks’ time, have to wrestle with their conscience over an election pledge or a potential seat at cabinet, then ambition will trump commitment. The usual anguished disclaimer will fill the air: “We had a set of principles but the electorate thought otherwise. It was our duty, however reluctantly, to change our position.” This truth stands despite all of the posturing from parties insisting they will not even consider an alliance with this party or that party. When the votes are counted and the prize is within reach all bets, as they always are at this realpolitik moment, are off.
And so they should be — the only thing wrong with the whole process are the utterly implausible prenuptial vetoes advanced because of fear and insecurity, gamesmanship and bluff and counter-bluff. Or, most cynically of all, convenience — after all if you don’t have to show your hand you can be all things to all men. Unfortunately this means we get to buy a pig in a poke. None of us knows with absolute certainty how voting for X, Y, or Z in the coming election will manifest itself in the Dáil — we might have a pretty good idea but, as ever, the only certainties are taxes and death.
Political leaders forswearing alliances should look at our recent history. The Progressive Democrats, established to destroy Charlie Haughey, went into coalition with Fianna Fáil three times — 1989, 1997, and 2002. That three-in-a-row was punctuated by an even more unanticipated alliance — the 1994 ‘temporary little arrangement’ between Albert Reynolds’ Fianna Fáil and Dick Spring’s Labour so anything, any marriage, is really possible if the suitors believe the union might lead to even shared power. This is not a dismal prospect but rather one loaded with potential. If circumstances — imminent irrelevance or compromise — were to force moderates to work together then the union might well be blessed.
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