Time for Labour to show its mettle
Opinion: Coalition put to the test as elections loom
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In autumn 2009, after both coalition parties tanked in the local elections, it was agreed that the programme for government would be renegotiated.
The Green Party provided a long wish list of demands to Fianna Fáil. There were worthy inclusions, not least a commitment to employ an extra 500 teachers. But there were some items that could only come from the Greens such as a ban on stag hunting, a phasing out of fur farming and other animal welfare measures.
I was talking to a world-weary and laconic adviser at the time and, in my naivety, asked had Fianna Fáil given a similar list of demands to the Greens.
Without blinking, he replied. “Sure, of course they have. They are demanding the reintroduction of badger-baiting and for bare-knuckle fighting in pub carparks to be recognised as a national sport.”
It was an effective put-down and also illustrated very well the dynamic between the bigger and smaller party in a coalition arrangement. The bigger party just by virtue of it being the bigger party has an innate advantage that every electoral contest in Ireland will confirm. It does not have to constantly justify itself in government in the same way as the junior partner is required. It doesn’t need lists; it doesn’t need to be so much on the defensive when one of its promises goes south; it doesn’t constantly need to amaze the voters with spectacular exhibitions of how a tail can wag a dog.
Besides, even when Fianna Fáil ceded lots of policy initiatives to the Greens it wasn’t unduly concerned. It understood cynically that you can make a promise but delivering it is often a journey the destination of which is never reached. It’s not to say Fine Gael – which has its fair cohort of ideologically driven Ministers – was quite content to get into power and then rest on its oars. It’s just to say that the imperatives and urgency are different for the bigger party in government.
In the early days of Government, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn made no bones that the reason he was abandoning core commitments of Labour on student fees was that the country was going through a desperate period and needed what amounted to a national or emergency government. The only comparable period was the Emergency years of the second World War.
Interestingly, Quinn mentioned in the past week that the complexion of the Government has changed since the departure of the troika (remember them?). In other words, no more synchronised swimming to a choreography worked out in Europe. Instead, the same destination but with a lot more unruly splashing in the water and a couple of bellyflops thrown in for good measure.
If you look at the history of coalitions in Ireland, the pattern is almost uniformly bad for the smaller party. Even when the economic circumstances are improving, it is no guarantee that the junior partner in government will emerge at the other end relatively unscathed. Look at Labour coming out of the rainbow coalition in 1996. Sure it could never realistically hope to retain all 33 seats won in the Spring Tide but it took a hammering that could not be measured against the improving performance of the economy.
Equally, the PDs were part of a coalition whose term coincided with an era of unprecedented prosperity and wealth (albeit built on a foundation of sand). It was eviscerated in 2007 because people could no longer distinguish it sufficiently from Fianna Fáil. Michael McDowell had warned that the party had a choice of being radical or redundant. It had obviously failed to be radical.
Indeed, the only time that the trend was bucked was in 2002, when the PDs gained seats. But that was on the back of a singular ploy in which the PDs made people think twice about trust issues and a single Fianna Fáil government.
Labour’s infamous Tesco advert warning of the prospect of a single party Fine Gael government is its equivalent of McDowell shimmying up a lamp-post in Ranelagh with a “Single Party Government, No Thanks” poster. To counter the hit from that and other OTT pronouncements made during the campaign, it needs to show (voluminously) real and substantial influence in government. For the past year or more, since the promissory note, it has been pursuing a strategy of pushing identifiable Labour positions. It has made some headway – the X case legislation; the Garda authority; the constitutional convention; the under-sixes medical cards; and Quinn’s reforms in education.
The immediate and looming test at this juncture is water charges. Fine Gael took a strategic decision that its core middle-class supporters could live with a €240 charge and, with approval from the very top, leaked that information. It left Labour in a tricky situation just weeks before a difficult local election. It has to show it can’t be railroaded into accepting that and that the eventual charge will be fair and equitable and at the same time not prohibitive for households. Enda Kenny almost forced a vote in Cabinet on the issue (which would have spelt curtains for the Government). There’s growing evidence the relationship between him and Eamon Gilmore is becoming discordant. No matter what resolution is reached, Labour will take a bigger hit on it.
Maybe that growing uneasiness is necessary for Labour. For it to emerge relatively intact in 2016, it will need to be radical, imaginative, different, more truculent and very distinct. Maybe a new programme is needed. Maybe the party needs to be extra assertive in other ways. It knows too it will have to overcome those unfulfilled promises with a substantial and impressive record of implementation.
Harry McGee is Political Correspondent of The Irish Times