Cracking the coalition code

11 February 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

One of the peculiarities of Irish General Election campaigns, and certainly a prominent feature of the one currently in full swing, is that they are conducted by the participants with only a tacit recognition of what has become a defining feature of Irish political life: that the Government eventually produced by the process will be comprised not of a single party but of two or more parties in coalition.
The traditional campaigning approach adopted seems in one sense to patronise the voter, who is not encouraged to give much thought to the ‘big picture’. Candidates battling for the seats available in the individual constituencies want to win our hearts and minds, but when it comes to the make-up of the administration that will eventually be formed when all the results are in, they more often than not seem to be saying to us, “Ah, don’t worry about that – leave it to us, we’ll work it out when we get there!”
This ad hoc approach to the formation of a government has not always served this country well. In this election above all others, when voters’ minds are intensely concentrated on how the country is to be brought out of its difficulties, it seems a highly inappropriate way for the campaign to be conducted. Yet anathema towards the ‘C’ word is emerging as one of the defining features of the current hustings.
Fine Gael and Labour, not so long ago the odds-on components of a new Government, seem to grow increasingly polarised as the campaign unfurls. This is due in part to a perceived shift in voter preference fuelled by the opinion polls, and perhaps also to the preoccupation of Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore over who gets to be Taoiseach.
At one stage in the interminable lead-up to the commencement of hostilities, the parties were almost neck-and-neck in the popularity charts. At present the wind of approval seems to be billowing FG’s sails to the extent that the party is contemplating an arrival in harbour with, if not an overall majority on board, sufficient numbers to make an arrangement with Labour optional rather than mandatory.
The conscientious voter will want to clarify this blurring of the message. Does the growing criticism being expressed by the once-likely coalition partners of each other’s economic policies represent mere electioneering? Or is it evidence of an irreconcilable policy difference that would make a future partnership at the helm of the country volatile, if not completely unviable? And if FG and Labour have now become estranged bedfellows, what other combinations are likely to be on the table when the 31st Dáil convenes?
The other big ship captain steering a course on the campaign seas, new Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin, might not be the insignificant player in the coalition scenario he once looked likely to be. Having shored up his leaky vessel with energetic pragmatism, Mr Martin seems reconciled to his impending losses and is going about the business of shaping a leaner but livelier political entity than that bequeathed him by Brian Cowen with a businesslike practicality.
In this he has been greatly assisted by Mr Kenny’s controversial, and questionable, decision to remain, like Achilles in his tent, absent from the first of the televised leaders’ debates this week. As well as being gifted half of centre stage for the first significant mass media exchange of the campaign, the FF leader was given beforehand a golden opportunity to undermine Mr Kenny’s political maturity. He availed of it fully. Mr Kenny will have to perform extra impressively upon his eventual entry to the studio fray to mitigate the damage delivered to his credibility by Mr Martin’s schoolmaster-like scolding of his initial ‘no-show’.
But does Mr Martin’s polished performance in his early days as party leader mean that FF can aspire to a role in the next Government? A massive improbability a few weeks ago, the prospect is still unlikely, but cannot be entirely dismissed. Much will depend on how many of its candidates survive the savaging which the voters are likely to deliver in the polls. And it will take a massive shift in mindset for the party of the ‘temporary little arrangement’ to countenance being a junior partner in government. Nonetheless, we should be hearing more about FF’s attitude to assuming such a role, and what the other parties have to say about it too. Would FG and FF be prepared to jettison the baggage of history and unite in government if that was the most stable of the options open after this election?
And what about a role for Sinn Féin in Government? There are many people in Cavan/Monaghan, where the party will surely return Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin to the Dáil and will battle hard to secure a second seat for newcomer Kathryn Reilly, who would like to hear an answer from the other parties, in particular Fine Gael, to this question that is not founded on anachronistic prejudices.
SF are likely to have an enhanced presence in the next Dáil, representative of a significant portion of the population that finds their aspirations better reflected in the party’s social policy platform than in those of others. It is extremely difficult to reconcile the SF solution to the economic problems of the nation with those being propounded by the traditional parties of government in this country, and one does not have to make a definitive judgement on either position to acknowledge that a role for the party in government is unlikely as a consequence.
But the likely exclusion from participation in a coalition government of SF, of other parties that would position themselves towards the left of the political spectrum in social or economic approaches, or – save in a last, make-up-the-numbers resort – of those elected to the Dáil on a range of Independent platforms, radical, conservative or parochial, is a somewhat depressing reflection of what has become this country’s moribund political status quo.
The sum of our collective participation in the general election process has in recent times amounted to a compromise among conservatisms. Perhaps that is eloquent of us as a people. Or perhaps it speaks more damningly of the prevailing attitude among the mainstream parties to coalition government in this country. It has been more the rule than the exception for recent Irish governments to be partnerships of unequals, marriages of convenience that the major player only enters into in order to acquire a voting majority in the Dáil.
The Green Party’s experience in the last administration suggests that very little progress has been made in this country in establishing coalition governments founded on mutual respect and an apportioning not only of responsibility but also of authority. The current Conservative-Liberal Democrats government in Britain, though not without its tensions and teething problems, is emerging as an example of how responsibility and authority can be managed in a coalition arrangement that makes some of the recent attempts at it in this country look of the kindergarten variety by comparison.
The Irish people will be anxious to elect a new Government capable of leading them out of the current depression and establishing the foundations for economic recovery and future prosperity. There will be some who favour stability, and will want to see empowered an alignment of parties that have a strong Dáil majority and can claim a compelling mandate to go about their work for the next five years. If this view prevails, we can expect a government in which some combination among the traditionally dominant parties emerges. Others who vote will want to see a more radical alternative to what they feel have been the staid, and failed, politics of the past. If they carry the day, one of the major parties will have to parley with one or more of the smaller groupings and Independents, and a government of rainbow hue might emerge to face into the difficult challenges ahead.
In arriving at their determination, it would assist the electorate if all the participants in the General Election were more forthcoming that they have so far been about their attitude to working in partnership with their political rivals to solve this country’s many problems. The shape of the future government will weigh heavily on the minds of the voter before he or she enters the polling booth on February 25.
A little bit of help from the candidates towards cracking the coalition code would be appreciated!

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