Coalitions are fragile things even at the best of times

Sat, Aug 11, 2012, 01:00

INSIDE POLITICS:THE OPEN rift between the parties that govern Britain has shown how quickly coalitions can run into trouble once relations begin to sour.

The close relationship between David Cameron and Nick Clegg that marked the formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition has deteriorated under the strain of the row over the relatively minor matter of the reform of the House of Lords.

Britain’s lack of experience of coalitions is one of the reasons the two parties are suddenly at each other’s throats, but the episode also demonstrates that tensions between parties over small matters can often be more dangerous than disagreements on major issues of policy.

Albert Reynolds famously remarked in the Dáil after the collapse of his Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition in November 1994: “It’s amazing. You cross the big hurdles and when you get to the small ones you get tripped.” What brought the Reynolds government down was a row between the coalition parties about who should be appointed president of the High Court. Given that the Reynolds government was making serious progress on the economy and had presided over the successful first phase of the peace process, a break-up on such a minor issue made no sense, but it happened nonetheless.

The problems facing the British coalition and the experience of past coalitions here may have important lessons for the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition.

One is that thorny minor issues are capable of spiralling out of control and creating greater difficulties for a coalition than big setpiece sources of conflict like the annual budget. It gets particularly dangerous when one or other of the coalition leaders nails his colours to the mast and is then faced with the choice of delivering on the rhetoric or facing an embarrassing climbdown.

For instance, the commitment of Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore to the introduction of gay marriage with the declaration that it was “the most important civil rights issue of the age” ignited tensions with Fine Gael.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who had made no secret of his view before the last election that the issue was not a priority for him, was immediately put under pressure by the media to say whether he agreed with the Tánaiste’s assessment.

Kenny kicked to touch rather than contradict Gilmore but that only angered some of his own TDs who felt that the Labour leader had walked the Taoiseach into an unnecessary controversy.

The strong views subsequently expressed at the Fine Gael parliamentary party against any proposal to legalise abortion was a direct reaction to Gilmore’s démarche on gay marriage, and it opened up another possible fault line between the parties.

The planned constitutional convention, which is due to consider gay marriage among other things, has the potential to create further trouble between the Coalition parties on a range of issues.

In Britain the source of the coalition’s problem was a revolt by Conservative backbenchers against agreed government policy rather than a disagreement between ministers. However, that ultimately led to a serious rift between the two party leaders.

A growing divergence between the two parliamentary parties in this country could spell trouble in the longer run.

To date the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition has managed to avoid a rift on really big issues of potential conflict such as spending cuts, the Croke Park agreement or reform of the welfare system. This is partly because both parties in government have little choice but to follow the EU-IMF programme, but it is also because so much care has been taken on both sides to avoid obvious pitfalls.

On taking office both Kenny and Gilmore committed themselves to the overriding objective of restoring the economy to full health by the time of the next election. If they can achieve that they will be able to face into that election with a fair degree of confidence, but a breakdown of trust over some legal or constitutional issue would be a disaster that could undo all the hard work.

That still appears to be an unlikely outcome. Kenny and Gilmore have known each other for a long time and they have a trusting relationship. They have also put in place the Economic Management Council, one of whose functions is to minimise conflict between the Coalition parties.

The success at EU level in first getting the interest rate on the EU-IMF loans reduced, and then the more recent achievement of getting agreement to review the terms of the bank debt, have put the Government in a strong position to put the economy back on the right track.

There will undoubtedly be squalls in the coming months and years over a range of issues and particularly the shape of the annual budget. Tax increases and spending cuts are never easy to agree but both parties in Government know the scale of the challenge.

The unravelling of good relations between the coalition parties in Britain, and the spats between Labour and Fine Gael on gay marriage and abortion, should serve as a warning about how things can so quickly spiral out of control.

Fógra: Much has been written and said about my former Irish Press colleague the late Con Houlihan. The tributes have naturally focused on his status as the greatest Irish sports writer of his age, but Con was also a man of rare political courage and insight.

His unwavering criticism of the Provisional IRA terror campaign during the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s was a powerful antidote to the charms of xenophobic nationalism. Con’s status as an icon among GAA supporters gave huge authority to his political views. He often cited Germany in the 1930s as an example of what could happen to a country if good men remained silent and allowed armed bullies to set the political agenda.

Con, the most gentle of men, never shirked speaking out in public and in private for the decent democratic values that underpin the Irish State.

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