Noel Whelan: Makeshift minority government is no solution

Unstable minority administration would serve only FG and FF and not the country

There has been much talk about how either a Fine Gael-only or a Fianna Fáil-only government could happen provided it was allowed rule by the other party. Photographs: The Irish Times

There has been much talk about how either a Fine Gael-only or a Fianna Fáil-only government could happen provided it was allowed rule by the other party. Photographs: The Irish Times

 

Truth and accuracy have become an early casualty in the fog of government formation.

In the wake of the dramatic election result, our politicians should be busily putting in place a government and a programme of policy to be implemented, ideally, for the next five years but very little of substance is happening. In the vacuum, every rumour gets a louder echo. Every chat over a cup of coffee becomes putative talks about talks. Every notion of government, no matter how fanciful, is given credence.

Immediately after the election, in an effort to deny the numerical outcome, there was much talk about how either a Fine Gael-only or a Fianna Fáil-only government could happen provided it was allowed rule by the other party.

Gradually, there came recognition, at least on the Fine Gael side, that a party with merely one-quarter of the vote could not credibly hold the executive power of 15 ministries. To do so would have been “a democratic fraud” to borrow a phrase from de Valera in 1948. It would have amounted to a constitutional travesty.

The next idea to come along is not much better.

Role of Independents

Now it is being suggested that Fine Gael is trying to put together a more diverse minority government which would include some others. Some of the Independents have their heads turned by Fine Gael sources telling newspapers last weekend that they would give them ministries such as agriculture and rural affairs.

What Fine Gael now appears to be trying to cobble together is a makeshift minority government. Notwithstanding their setback in the election, we are to continue to have a Fine Gael-dominated Cabinet with a few Independent ministers to take the bare Fine Gael look off it. Some suggest that such a government would be credible if Fine Gael and friendly Independents combined had 70-plus seats.

Others suggest it is doable even if they have only 65 seats or more. As they play dressing up at government, they are literally plucking these numbers out of thin air.

They claim that such a government would be a good thing, and can be deemed a success even if it manages to limp only for a year or 18 months.

It is unlikely Fine Gael will ever get that many Independents to support it in government but even if it did, its makeshift minority Cabinet would still be dependent on Fianna Fáil as the main opposition party for its survival. Fine Gael and some Independents may end up holding all the ministerial offices but they would have very little, if any, power.

Week in, week out, this makeshift minority government would be at the whim of any of its Independent backers or beholden to Fianna Fáil to sustain it or render it in any way effective.

It difficult to see how it would counter the dogged, destructive and increasingly creative endeavours by Sinn Féin and other left-wing elements to undermine their capacity to deliver government.

Under this makeshift minority scenario we have the worst of both worlds. We would have a government again led by Fine Gael, only this time unstable and ineffective. Meanwhile, we would have an opposition led by a Fianna Fáil party that would be politically neutered by its support for the government.

While Fianna Fáil would of course still sit on the opposition benches in a position to shout and strut about what the government was doing wrong, it would lack real capacity to oppose because it would be locked into a medium-term agreement to keep the government afloat or would be terrified of being blamed for an early election.

Every effort by Fianna Fáil to criticise the actions of ministers could be easily dismissed because Fianna Fáil would have to vote repeated confidence in those same ministers.

Cheerleaders for this scenario speak in Orwellian terms of how this government would reflect a newly discovered commitment to “new politics” or a “change of culture”.

It is abundantly clear to the public however that if this makeshift minority arrangement is to happen it is because it serves the purposes of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, as those parties perceive them to be, rather than those of the country.

Political self-interest

Ireland’s capacity to sustain and more equally distribute its recovery is to be endangered for narrow party interest. The authority and timetable necessary to tackle pressing social problems such as the housing crisis is to be undermined and truncated for purely party-political considerations. Party grass roots rather than the wider electorate are to hold sway.

Here’s hoping over the Easter break, and the various 1916 centenary celebrations, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians experience enough life outside the party bubble to appreciate how thin the patience of the wider electorate is wearing. Unfortunately, there can be no guarantee they will listen to or act on what they’ll hear.

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