Greens to benefit as notion of cosy Coalition shattered

Sat, Feb 20, 2010, 00:00

INSIDE POLITICS:Junior partner’s change of heart about O’Dea has ended perception it has a comfortable relationship with FF, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

RELATIONS BETWEEN the Coalition partners may never be the same again after the resignation of Willie O’Dea. Bruising and all as the episode was, it may be a good thing for the Greens if it puts paid to the notion that it is involved in a cosy relationship with Fianna Fáil.

The Greens have been very unlucky about the timing of their first venture into government, just before the consequences of years of Fianna Fáil misrule affected the country. There is nothing the Greens can do about that; what has been damaging is that the relationship with their Coalition partners has looked so comfortable and complacent.

It was that easy relationship that prompted the five Green TDs to vote confidence in O’Dea before the penny dropped about just how serious the issue was. Mind you, most of the Opposition and most of the media had only cottoned on over the previous few days that this was potentially a resigning issue.

The Greens’ initial response to the Fine Gael decision to put down a motion of no confidence in O’Dea was that this was a routine Opposition manoeuvre designed to drive a wedge between the Coalition parties.

The Taoiseach’s decision to take the motion as early as possible was designed to keep the debate at that level. The Greens were rescued from the initial political misjudgment by party chairman Senator Dan Boyle’s decision to publicly vent his disquiet at what happened. That kept the issue alive until O’Dea’s contrite radio interview with Seán O’Rourke showed that the politics of the situation had changed.

Those events gave Green Party leader John Gormley the leverage he needed to go to Taoiseach Brian Cowen to tell him the Minister would have to go. Fianna Fáil sources suggest that by that stage O’Dea had already intimated to Cowen that he was going to resign, but one way or another, the episode was suddenly turned on its head.

The lesson for the Greens is that it will have to adopt a more businesslike and ruthless approach to its Coalition partner. Déirdre de Búrca may not be very popular with her former colleagues, but they are beginning to accept her assessment that Fianna Fáil has been dancing rings around them.

It is always difficult for a small party to hold its own in government with such a powerful and dominant force as Fianna Fáil, who have been running the institutions of the State for most of the past 80 years and who understand the nuts and bolts of politics like no other.

The Greens would be well advised to look back at the political history of the past few decades for a guide about how to get their principles implemented while not being suffocated by their larger partners.

Since they first went into coalition in 1989, Fianna Fáil has contested three elections at the end of a partnership government. In all three cases, the partner was the Progressive Democrats, a policy-driven party like the Greens committed to a particular economic and social philosophy. The PDs gained seats twice at the end of a coalition, but on the third the party was destroyed.

The first election the PDs contested on the way out of government with Fianna Fáil was in 1992 and on that occasion the junior coalition party triggered the election after just three years in office by pulling out because its leader Des O’Malley had been accused of giving “dishonest” evidence by the then taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. As with the Greens now, there was a strong argument for the PDs staying on in office to pursue its economic agenda, but conflict between the two leaders led to an election.

Instead of being wiped out as most pundits predicted at the time, the PDs actually increased their number of Dáil seats from six to 10 in the 1992 election and gained votes at the expense of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

A decade later, the PDs fought an election after five years in power with Bertie Ahern. In the election campaign, the smaller party turned on its senior partner, with Michael McDowell warning voters against the dangers of single-party Fianna Fáil government. The tactic paid off and the PDs doubled their Dáil representation from four seats to eight.

However, it was third time unlucky in 2007 after another full five-year term when the PDs went into the election after McDowell had dithered for nine months about whether or not to pull out due to revelations about Bertie Ahern’s financial dealings. The party was wiped out and has disappeared. The lesson from the PDs’ demise is that a small party has to have a clear strategy about the circumstances in which it is prepared to exit government – and its coalition partner has to believe that it is serious. The problem for the Greens this week was that Fianna Fáil took them for granted on the basis that an immediate election was too terrible to contemplate.

It was only when events threatened to spin out of everybody’s control that Fianna Fáil moved smartly to sort out the problem created by O’Dea and he had to pay the ultimate price. For Fianna Fáil the lesson is that it needs to adopt a degree of humility that is foreign to its culture. One of the triggers for the Greens’ change of heart on Wednesday was the spectacle of senior figures on the Fianna Fáil benches giggling and sniping at the Opposition, as if the swearing of a false affidavit was a matter of no consequence.

It is impossible to know whether the resignation will shorten or prolong the life of the Coalition, but it should have taught the Greens a valuable lesson. Over the past 18 months, the party has shown great courage in helping to sort out the problems of the country, which were not of its making. It is now time to plan for its own survival.