Geraldine Kennedy: How a new government can be formed
We could have the most constructive, representative and exciting Dáil ever
What is needed now is for politicians, particularly the leadership of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, to be big and imaginative enough to think outside the box. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
It is not as difficult as they all seem to think to get a stable and workmanlike government based on the results of the general election. They just need time to act out the ritual party dances to bring their supporters along with them.
But that government will be very different, as is the new Dáil. What is needed now is for politicians, particularly the leadership of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, to be big and imaginative enough to think outside the box, to explore and agree a new dispensation, which we imposed on politics in Northern Ireland.
As the dust settles after an extraordinary election, it is clear that Micheál Martin is determined to honour his campaign commitment that Fianna Fáil will not go into coalition government with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. The political wisdom now is that it was the Labour Party’s broken political promises in 2011, as much as anything else, which led to its decimation in 2016.
Neither will Martin want to support the minority Fine Gael government with a formal Tallaght-type strategy such as the one pursued by Alan Dukes when he backed Charles Haughey’s minority Fianna Fáil government from outside in 1987. He is right. Dukes’s original, more limited, intention was that Fine Gael would support Haughey’s government on major economic issues in the national interest.
What happened, in fact, was that the other parties, including the Progressive Democrats, of which I was then chief whip and spokesman on foreign affairs and Northern Ireland, could indulge themselves by abstaining or voting against the government on other non-financial issues. It was always left to Fine Gael to vote for Fianna Fáil or the government would fall.
So, if there isn’t a Fine Gael/ Fianna Fáil coalition or a formal Tallaght strategy where Fianna Fáil supports a Fine Gael minority government on an agreed programme, what kind of government could be in the making?
There will be a Fine Gael minority government of 49 or 50 deputies, 29 or 30 members short of a majority in the Dáil (79). That’s presuming that a Fine Gael TD will not become ceann comhairle.
Martin will set out to prevent Sinn Féin becoming the main opposition party by sitting on the opposition benches. He will be leader of the opposition in the 32nd Dáil, supporting the minority government on agreed big issues while trying to force all, or most, other parties and Independents to accept responsibility for the agenda of the new Dáil.
There are hints of this strategy already emerging. Fianna Fáil’s director of elections, Billy Kelleher, gave an interesting interview to Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ on Monday where he introduced the concept of a programme for parliament, even if it does sound a bit Cromwellian. Later in the day, Martin made a statement calling for certain proposals for Dáil reform to be agreed before the formation of the next government. The most important one, in current circumstances, is a committee to consider budgetary policy.
The intent of these two Fianna Fáil interventions is to restore the primacy of the Dáil, to dilute the absolute power of the executive that every Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led government has refused to do over the last 40 years or more.
In opposition, they call for Dáil reform. In government, they embrace control. They love having the power to appoint their supporters, be it to the high level of the judiciary or the lower level of State boards.
In the new political circumstances, it appears that Fianna Fáil wants to walk a political tightrope by supporting a minority government “in the national interest” but leading the opposition at the same time.
So, what could be in a programme for parliament for the 32nd Dáil? It is actually quite simple and obvious, reflecting the concerns of voters and the outcome of the election results.
There is already a compromise in the air on water charges and Irish Water, an issue on which Fianna Fáil and the outgoing Government had slightly different timing policies. It is also a fundamental issue for the left and the Right2Change street protest movement. But the permanent dismantling of Irish Water and water charges has major financial, political and EU implications. They are not fully thought out yet.
There is absolutely no doubt that the issue of mothers, fathers and children living in a hotel room – without a fridge or a washing machine – is absolutely unacceptable in modern Ireland to all classes of voters. There has to be a social housing programme and an agreed way to finance it.
The big Fine Gael promise in the election was to abolish the universal social charge (USC) at a cost of €4 billion over five years. That should not and will not happen now. It did most damage to Fine Gael’s credibility in the campaign. It narrows the tax base irresponsibly in a way proportionate to the abolition of rates by the Fianna Fáil government in 1977. Maybe a look at the Labour and Fianna Fáil commitments would be worthwhile.
The Social Democrats made a very sensible suggestion during the election campaign that a Dáil committee would conduct an all-party inquiry into the health system. That is a good and innovative idea. If we are among the big spenders in Europe on health, as Stephen Donnelly said, why don’t we have a better service? It would be informative to call in the consultants, the nurses, the managers, the unions and others to get their assessment.
Dáil reform is a key to the proposed programme for parliament. But in a new dispensation for the Dáil it is important that the liberal agenda isn’t left behind to the left-wing parties. The people are way ahead of the politicians, as was seen on the marriage equality referendum.
The Labour Party, Social Democrats, the Green Party, the Anti-Austerity Alliance- People Before Profit and Sinn Féin – not to mention the unknown views of the Shane Ross Independent Alliance and the variety of new Independent TDs – favour a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, the abortion article in the Constitution.
Enda Kenny has proposed a citizens’ assembly to look at the repeal of the amendment. It would be beneficial and educational for the electorate to have some sort of discussion, more appropriately now in a Dáil committee. Jerry Buttimer’s chairing of the all-party health committee on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was very serious, informative and educational for deputies as much as the electorate.
What are the implications for women, doctors and hospitals of abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities and rape?
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil may not envisage the repeal of the Eighth Amendment but why not put it to the people after it has been considered by a Dáil committee that would call in all of the interested parties? There would have to be a free vote across all parties because this is one of the last remaining conscience issues in Irish politics.
That’s the shape of things to come. We can have the most constructive, exciting and representative Dáil that we have ever had. That’s if the politicians can get their heads around what the people have said.