Ahern will favour PD coalition

 

ANALYSIS: Demands of Independents could well prove unacceptable as the new government squares up to tough issues, writes Denis Coghlan, Chief Political Correspondent

Caution is Bertie Ahern's middle name. And when the Taoiseach enters the 29th Dail on June 6th, he will almost certainly do so on the arm of Mary Harney and promise five more years of stable coalition with the Progressive Democrats.

The alternative - a minority Fianna Fáil government supported by Independents - might be more attractive in terms of giving Fianna Fail political control of all 15 government departments but the risks would be enormous as the State moves into a period of economic turbulence.

The support of Independents, even Fianna Fáil Independents, could not be guaranteed if the going gets truly rough. And, anyway, their demands might become unacceptable as Mr Ahern finally squares up to issues like administrative reform and deregulation of the public and private sectors.

The Taoiseach said as much in a succession of interviews when it became clear that Fianna Fáil would fall tantalisingly short of an overall Dáil majority. "Stability" was his watchword. And a further five years in government was the incentive for the party. Having served in government for eleven of the last thirteen years, Fianna Fáil could extend that run to 16 out of 18 years.

During that time, governments were heavily influenced by economic thinking in both the United States and Britain. The political struggle was for the allegiance of the upwardly mobile. Privatisation of public companies, the championing of small business and the sale of council houses provided a political matrix that fed into a period of rapid economic growth. Extensive tax cuts became possible as government revenues soared. And social partnership programmes provided a firm foundation for increasing prosperity.

Only recently, however, has the electorate's appetite for good public services, along with competent economic management, been recognised. And that was the platform on which the current Government fought, and won, the election.

Even since its ardfheis, last March, Fianna Fáil has hammered home the message that a rag-bag arrangement of Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party would wreck the economy and bring ruin on the State. And, as fiscal storm clouds gathered, the public was told the only safety lay with the current coalition arrangement.

The message carried a double edge. For, as Fianna Fáil's support grew, the Progressive Democrats remained becalmed. Terrified of a repeat of 1997, when the party was hollowed out by the dominance of Fianna Fáil and lost two seats, Michael McDowell launched a campaign, half way through the election, to deny the larger party a majority.

It was straight out of the "radical or redundant" think-tank. Fianna Fáil couldn't be trusted in government on its own, Mary Harney insisted. And the only way to prevent that happening was to vote for the Progressive Democrats. The message was aimed at the soft underbelly of Fine Gael in particular, which, at that stage, had no chance of forming an alternative government. A flood of votes from middle-class constituencies was the result on polling day. And both Fine Gael and the Labour Party felt the pinch.

The "stop Fianna Fáil" campaign was a triumphant success. Although the party's national vote declined on the 1997 figure, the Progressive Democrats returned with a higher number of seats. The Tánaiste was so buoyed by the result she was in no rush to negotiate a new coalition arrangement with Fianna Fáil. The PDs would not be taken for granted.

If Bertie Ahern was disappointed by his failure to win an overall majority, he hid it well. The party had fought a fantastic campaign, with wonderful vote management, winning an estimated 49 per cent of the seats with 41.49 per cent of the votes. Final election results were still awaited and new options had opened.

To paraphrase the party's election slogan, a lot had been achieved, but more remained to be done. Apart from incipient difficulties involving the economy and social reform, the election itself had thrown up political challenges that could threaten Fianna Fáil in the future.

The most immediate of these was the performance of Sinn Féin, which almost doubled the size of its first-preference vote to 6.51 per cent and increased its Dáil representation from one to five seats.

Sinn Féin had performed better than expected. With a little luck it could have increased the number of its Dáil seats and it was already talking about the 2004 local elections as a springboard for further advances. As a nationalist party, with a strong presence on both sides of the border and a full-blooded commitment to Irish unity, it would be a difficult nut to crack.

The waving of the tricolour by successful Sinn Féin candidates would not have been lost on the Taoiseach as he prepares for a re-run of the Nice referendum in the autumn.

And Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams made it clear his party would again oppose the terms of the Nice Treaty, on the grounds that the treaty would lead to an erosion of neutrality, the loss of an Irish EU Commissioner and opposition to greater European integration.

The Nice Treaty referendum will be the first important test facing a new government and it will pose hard questions for all parties. A strengthened Green Party will again oppose it but all eyes will be on the positioning of Fine Gael and the Labour Party.

Even before that happens, however, Fianna Fáil may move to deprive Independents and Sinn Féin of political oxygen at local level. Noel Dempsey championed reforms in the last government that would have split local from national politics and barred councillors from holding seats in the Dáil and Seanad. Opposition from Jackie Healy-Rae, Mildred Fox and Harry Blaney caused a humiliating abandonment of that legislation. But a majority coalition arrangement involving Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats could be expected to introduce early reform.

With the number of Independents in the 29th Dail well into double figures, the phenomenon is a threat to the major parties. The development was fuelled by the public's perception of the power and influence wielded by a handful of TDs in the last Dáil. But this time, their support will not be needed if Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats agree a programme for government. As a consequence, the tide behind them may ebb in the coming years.

Fine Gael didn't suffer an ebbing tide; it was caught in a maelstrom and torn asunder. The party didn't just lose support; it ran out of luck and forfeited seats it might have won in different circumstances.

In 1997, the party had taken 32 per cent of the seats with 27.9 per cent of the vote, returning with 54 TDs. This time, Fine Gael reversed that trend and took only 19 per cent of the seats with a vote tally of 22.5 per cent. Former leader Alan Dukes, deputy leader Jim Mitchell, and former deputy leader Nora Owen were among the high-profile casualties as the roof caved in.

Michael Noonan did the honourable thing. With Fine Gael imploding about him, the Fine Gael leader of 15 months announced his resignation. But he undertook to remain as caretaker leader until a successor had been appointed.

Long before final counts came in from the larger constituencies and potential leaders fell before the scythe of public displeasure, the race was on. John Bruton announced he had no personal interest in the position. But the possible of his being drafted as a candidate remained open. And Gay Mitchell spoke of making the party immediately identifiable and relevant by repositioning it on the centre-right, as a Christian Democratic party with a strong commitment to Europe.

But the question of how the new leader would be chosen remained open. Would it be done by TDs alone, as an emergency measure, would they await the election of new senators, or would the recently-authorised voting system involving both partyand Oireachtas members be invoked? The coming week will tell.

The Labour Party was in disarray, its bright ambitions dimmed.

Instead of the 25 or more seats it had confidently expected, it made a net gain of one, to 22. And it lost its former leader, Dick Spring, when Sinn Féin's Martin Ferris took a seat in in Kerry North.

Labour leader Ruairí Quinn struggled for a time before being elected in Dublin South East. And the party's high-profile spokesman on finance, Derek McDowell, lost out in Dublin North East. The party's campaign, based on six social pledges, had failed to strike a radical-enough chord with the electorate.

Instead, the floating, protest vote drifted to the Green Party, to Sinn Féin and to the Independents.

Newly restructured and interested in sharing power, the Green Party had a great election. Pushing the party's national vote up from 2.8 to 3.8 per cent, the number of seats was boosted from two to six and it extended its base in Dublin and Cork.

With the Nice referendum coming down the tracks, the party's profile is likely to remain high. But its opposition to the terms of that treaty rules out its immediate participation in government.

As for the policies of the next government, Mr Ahern has already laid down broad parameters. Reform of public administration will be central in the drive to improve health and education services. And tax cuts are a thing of the past.

THE TAOISEACH'S OPTIONS

A coalition with the Progressive Democrats:

Mr Ahern's favoured option is to re-establish a coalition with the Progressive Democrats. Between them the parties would have an easy, even comfortable, majority. In extremis, Fianna Fáil could always fall back on Independents for support.

A minority Fianna Fáil government supported by Independents:

Taoiseach could depend for support on Mr Jackie Healy-Rae, newly-elected Mr Niall Blaney and - barring an upset - on Ms Mildred Fox. Former members of Fianna Fáil, Mr Paddy McHugh of Galway East and Mr James Breen of Clare, could also be enlisted. All that without exploring the shopping lists of Ms Marian Harkin from Sligo-Leitrim and Dr Jerry Cowley from Mayo.

A coalition with the Green Party:

While the Green Party has indicated a willingness to enter government, its attitude towards the Nice Treaty and waste incineration would pose great difficulties.

A coalition with Sinn Féin

The Taoiseach has ruled out a formal arrangement with Sinn Féin in the absence of full decommissioning by the IRA.