Fine Gael/Labour hostilities

Sat, Feb 19, 2011, 00:00

A REMARKABLE feature of the general election campaign has been the sudden outbreak of verbal hostilities between Fine Gael and Labour, the parties most likely to form the next government. Most national elections since 1932, when Fianna Fáil first swept into government, have had one common theme: Fianna Fáil against the rest with party campaigns conducted along that dividing line. But this election is quite different. Fianna Fáil is not a serious contender for power and the potential coalition partners are accentuating their differences on some major policy questions.

With Fianna Fáil increasingly marginalised and bracing itself for an electoral setback as far-reaching as that remarkable breakthrough in 1932, the main electoral battle for the minds and hearts of voters has been fought between Fine Gael and Labour.

However, what began as friendly rivalry between parties competing for votes, with each hoping to maximise its number of Dáil seats, has escalated into increasingly bitter exchanges and a degree of mutual hostility. Each party has chosen, it seems, to maximise rather than minimise policy differences. This has left both Fine Gael and Labour sharply divided on key economic issues: on tax, on public spending and on how quickly the budget deficit can be reduced.

Fine Gael, as the opinion polls have indicated, has gained momentum as the campaign progresses while support for Labour has faltered. This steady advance has encouraged Fine Gael to aim for an overall Dáil majority and to distance itself from Labour. Labour has responded by engaging in some negative campaigning, using newspaper advertising to highlight the price and – as Labour sees it – the perils of single-party Fine Gael government.

Voters this time are more mindful that they are not merely electing members to the Dáil at a defining moment in our history.

Their votes are also influencing the election of a government to meet the greatest economic challenge the State has faced since its foundation. Given that daunting prospect, the degree of policy difference between Fine Gael and Labour – highlighted to maximise party advantage – should be a cause of justifiable concern. For any joint programme for government that may be agreed later by Fine Gael and Labour will have to reconcile and accommodate their pre-election policy differences. An obvious risk is that while the political bargaining may produce an acceptable compromise for the parties, such a joint programme may well limit the government’s options in tackling the economic crisis.

An earlier Fine Gael/Labour coalition in less difficult times in the 1980s struggled to reconcile differences in government on how best to manage the public finances. The challenge is far greater and the stakes are much higher now. It is time that both potential partners in coalition gave less thought to maximising their pre-election policy differences for party advantage, and gave more consideration to ensuring that – if the voters so decide – they are also in a position to offer stability and effective government.