FF will never recover former position

Mon, Feb 28, 2011, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Proportional representation saved Fianna Fáil from total obliteration but whether the party can survive as a serious political force is open to question, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

IRISH POLITICS will never be the same again. The era of Fianna Fáil dominance, which lasted for three-quarters of a century, came to an abrupt end at the weekend as the voters expressed their fury in the ballot at the way the party has run the country for the past decade and more.

While opinion polls had given plenty of warning that big changes were on the way, it was only when the ballot papers came tumbling out of the boxes on Saturday morning that the breathtaking scale of the Fianna Fáil rout became clear.

Nothing like it has happened since the Irish Party was swept into the dustbin of history in 1918. In fact the Irish Party performed better on that occasion than Fianna Fáil has in 2011 but was undone by the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Proportional representation saved Fianna Fáil from total obliteration but whether the party can survive as a serious political force is open to question. One thing is certain; it will never recover its place as the dominant party of power.

The electorate had clearly determined some time back to wreak vengeance on Fianna Fáil for all that has gone wrong and the EU-International Monetary Fund bailout was the final straw. The anger was probably fuelled by a sense of guilt among those who voted for it in 2007.

The implosion of the party in Dublin Central where Bertie Ahern and his Drumcondra mafia had ruled the roost for so long was one indication of that mood of guilt turning itself into anger.

The election has transformed the political landscape in one fell swoop, reflecting an obvious thirst in the country for a different kind of politics.

While people clearly don’t want a radical shift to the left or right, they want a government that will be honest, open and courageous as it tackles the enormous challenges facing the country.

For Fine Gael, which has spent so much of its history in the wilderness of opposition, the extent of its election victory was beyond the wildest dreams of generations of party supporters. The astonishing thing is that not only is it the biggest party in the Dáil for the first time in its history, it is so much bigger than any other party.

“We have managed to see off the PDs and the Greens but I never thought we’d see off Fianna Fáil as well,” remarked one Fine Gael TD over the weekend.

The professionalism of Fine Gael’s vote management was stunning. On a purely proportional basis, the party was entitled to 60 seats but it won 16 more than that.

When Enda Kenny arrived in the Burlington Hotel for a restrained victory celebration on Saturday night, there were a few tears shed when he told an emotional gathering of party supporters that he had received a congratulatory phone call from the 91-year-old former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave.

“I’m an old man now but you have made me proud,” Cosgrave told Kenny and reminded the incoming taoiseach of a little piece of history. The 31st Dáil, in which Fine Gael will be the biggest party, will meet for the first time on March 9th. It was on that date in 1932 that Fianna Fáil took over the reins of power from his father, WT Cosgrave, and began its long dominance of Irish politics.

Kenny won’t have much time to savour his victory because the hard work of government will begin on that date.

Before it arrives, he will have to put a government together and it will be the first test of his negotiating skills and his resolve.

A coalition deal with the Labour Party is the obvious way to proceed, but there is not a lot of time to construct a programme for government.

Labour has broken its own records in this election and, while the result may not be as good as it hoped for at the beginning of the campaign, the party will have a record number of seats.

Eamon Gilmore made it clear yesterday that he is clearly interested in going into government but the question is on what terms.

Fine Gael and Labour policies are compatible on a range of issues from political reform to changes in the health service. However, there is one fundamental issue on which they have expressed very different views. That is on how to deal with the public finances.

Fine Gael has emphasised during the campaign that it favours a ratio of two to one in terms of spending cuts to taxation while Labour wants an even split between the two.

More importantly Fine Gael wants to meet the target set in the EU-IMF deal of getting the public finances back in order by 2014 while Labour wants to spread the process out for at least another year.

Senior people in Fine Gael are acutely conscious that the main failure of the coalition led by Garret FitzGerald in the 1980s was that Labour got its way from the beginning on the budget targets when Dick Spring, from his hospital bed, vetoed the budget targets set by minister for finance Alan Dukes.

The result was to spread the pain of re-adjustment over too long a period and neither party were thanked by the electorate for their genuine achievements.

This time around, Fine Gael is not in a mood to water down its commitment to sorting out the public finances by 2014.

The party’s Dublin South West TD and spokesman on public expenditure Brian Hayes reflected this in media comments at the weekend when he insisted that Labour would have to respect the mandate Fine Gael had received from the people.

If agreement can be reached between them on the public finances, other issues will be easily sorted.

There will be a lot of speculation over Cabinet positions and whether Labour gets the five it is entitled to on a proportional basis or the six it had when last in government.

But such a matter is a nuts-and-bolts issue and not a deal-breaker.

Both parties have a strong hand. Fine Gael could try and form a government without Labour by looking for support from some of the Independents or even Fianna Fáil. However, a minority government would not have the stability the country requires.

There is an argument in Labour for staying in opposition to try and build the party to a position where it would be a real contender to be the biggest party at the next election.

Labour councillor Cian O’Callaghan made this point yesterday, arguing that Irish politics had now broken down along European lines with the largest party being Christian Democratic and our second-largest party Social Democratic.

“Civil war politics is now finished. Fine Gael was chosen by the people to lead the next government and Labour has been elected as the second-largest party to lead the opposition,” he argued.

However, Gilmore made the more pertinent point that these are not ordinary times and the severity of the economic crisis demands a national government composed of the two biggest parties.

Labour will have to hold a national conference to ratify any decision to go into coalition where these issues will be thrashed out.

As for Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and Independents, they can all look forward to making plenty of noise in the incoming Dáil.

If Fine Gael and Labour make good on their pledges of political reform, they should also get an opportunity to make a real contribution through a more powerful committee system.

Whatever happens, the next Dáil will usher in a new era in Irish politics.

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