Alex Salmond: Enda Kenny must make friends in Dáil, and quickly
Taoiseach is in for a harder fight than SNP had in forging government in 2007
Enda Kenny: has gone from a position of strength to one of weakness. Photograph: Eric Luke
And so it is towards minority government that Ireland is now likely bound. As it happens, this is something I know just a little about.
In 2007, I led the Scottish National Party to a historic first election triumph. The SNP won 47 of the 129 seats in the Holyrood parliament, one more than Labour.
Until then, Scotland’s parliament, reconvened in 1999, had been ruled by two successive Labour-Liberal coalition executives, under three Scottish Labour Party first ministers.
Initially, I had entertained thoughts of a coalition-style government with the Liberals, but they (rather like the Irish Labour Party now) had been badly bruised during their tenure as a minority partner in a coalition.
The talks broke down almost before they started. Instead, I secured a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Green Party, which had but two members. This did not do much for the political arithmetic, but it certainly enhanced the moral authority of the government.
Two weeks after the election, I was elected the SNP’s first ever first minister, with the support of the Greens and Holyrood’s sole Independent, the redoubtable Margo MacDonald.
I formed Scotland’s first minority government.
From the outset, the challenge that lay ahead was clear. For the SNP to remain in power, we had to be prepared to fight every single day to ensure political survival. The arithmetic was not unlike that which may face Enda Kenny if he is re-elected taoiseach.
However, the political position I faced was a tad more promising. Enda Kenny does not enjoy the same advantage now, it seems. The greatest weapon a minority leader wields is the opposition’s fear of an election. The greatest weakness of leading a minority is being tripped up over something unexpected or minor. It is important not to make a crisis out of every drama.
I established clear parameters early on. My government would shrug aside reversals in parliament on amendments to legislation or on opposition motions. What we refused to tolerate was the opposition removing one of my ministers or the voting down of a budget. In that case we would go to the country.
Over one weekend in summer 2007 I changed the name of the administration from the “Scottish executive” to the “Scottish government” by the simple expedient of having all the signs repainted. This was symbolically important in underpinning the government’s authority. In the absence of a majority it is important to govern with panache.
Every budget became a Borgen-style drama, with opposition parties anxious to secure concessions, without voting budgets down. On one occasion the Labour opposition stopped the budget by mistake when they (and I) were caught by surprise by the Greens switching sides in mid-debate. However, the last thing Labour wanted was an election and one week later essentially the same budget sailed through parliament.
The following four years as a minority government were far from easy. However, the electorate rewarded us by returning the SNP with a full majority government in 2011 – in a proportional electoral system designed specifically to avoid this result.
Kenny has gone from a position of strength to one of weakness. He led Ireland determinedly through one of the most difficult periods in modern memory. However, the people were disinclined to grant him an easy passage to a second term. When I formed the SNP minority government, we were very much on the upswing. Fine Gael is refused that advantage.
Another problem the Taoiseach faces is not just the party that came second, but the party that came third – Sinn Féin. There is little doubt that a historic grand coalition, leaving Sinn Féin as the dominant party of opposition, would have played straight into the latter’s hands.
Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, the engaging and shrewd Mary Lou McDonald has already begun to beat the battle drum of opposition, calling the drawn-out FF/FG talks “a farce”.
Regardless of who forms the next government, it will require agreements and deals if anything is to pass in the Dáil. However, Sinn Féin will be first to remind the public that, in the end, there is little separating the two big parties.
My advice for minority leaders is to make friends, and make them quickly. They are entering a world where daily deals and sacrifices are essential to ensure political survival and each day could be their last.
Also do not overplay your hand – as Charlie Haughey did famously in 1989, allowing his government to fall on a relatively minor matter in the hope of gaining a majority. The people are not that easy to fool and tend to disapprove of that sort of thing. Equally, the opposition will be on the rack of public opinion if they don’t allow the minority administration to govern and to answer Ireland’s call.
Thus, it is a delicate and daily balancing act. The Scottish minority government I led served its full term. However, I’m not so sure that this will be the case in Ireland.
If I were a betting man (and I am), then I wouldn’t be putting the ballot boxes into the thatch just yet.They may be required afore long.
Alex Salmond MP was first minister of Scotland from 2007-2014