Parties face paradigm shift as minority government demands change

Minority administration can work, but demands subtle skills, says a British report

Irish Times Deputy Political Editor Pat Leahy reports from Leinster House where both acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin have failed for the third time to be elected taoiseach in the Dáil. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Wrestling with the various combinations and permutations, there is little confidence among politicians around Leinster House that what will finally emerge is a functioning, stable, settled administration with a long-term future.

A government without a reliable, working majority in the Dáil? Which cannot be sure of implementing its programme? Which would frequently face defeat in the Dáil? It’ll never work.

Perhaps the people – in all parties and none – who voice this view are right. But they may also be guilty of a failure of imagination. Minority governments are not exactly unheard of; they have operated in this country and currently function successfully elsewhere.

It may turn out not to be the best choice for this country now, or it might well collapse in a heap within a few months. But to suggest that minority governments are inherently unstable and unsuccessful fails to take account of both their success elsewhere and of the capacity of our political system to change in response to changing public demands.

And the political landscape is changing; the general election result was evidence of that.

Political catharsis

It may be that just as one era of politics ended when Fianna Fáil embraced coalition government, another is ending now. Then, the coalition conversion of Charles Haughey emerged not as a choice he sought but as one forced upon him by the electoral realities with which he was presented. The new electoral reality of 2016 may have a similar cathartic effect on the current political equilibrium.

The way governments are put together and operate over their lifetime will change in response to the changes in our politics. In other words, we might all have to get used to this.

Partly because they are so common elsewhere, a good deal of study has been done on how minority governments function.

Anticipating (incorrectly, as it happens) a hung parliament in the UK, British academics in 2010 produced an extensive study, drawing on experience internationally, intended to act as a road map for all actors – the political parties, the civil service and the media – for how Britain might move from a political system that insisted on parliamentary majorities to one where minority administrations became the norm. That has not yet been necessary in the neighbouring jurisdiction. But it looks like we are on the verge of it here.

According to the authors of Making Minority Government Work, “Minority government can be made to work; but it requires more subtle skills than the simpler and cruder forms of majoritarian politics.”

One of the biggest changes the authors of the British study identify is that the government must become more consensual in its deals with parliament and the opposition.

“A key lesson from other countries is that when minority prime ministers seek to govern as if they had a majority the result is instability, partisanship, persistent electioneering and likely failure. By contrast, minority administrations which adopt a more consensual approach, negotiating and making concessions with opponents inside and outside parliament, are more likely to remain in office and to make headway with their policy agenda,” the study finds.

Constructive

However, it is not all one-way traffic. While the opposition will have more power and influence, it will have to use that power responsibly and constructively if the minority experience is to be successful for the country.

“This unaccustomed power,” the report says, “requires opposition leaders to act responsibly, not to oppose for opposition’s sake.”

If Enda Kenny forms a government, this will be an enormous challenge for Fianna Fáil – which will nominally be leading the opposition, but also facilitating the government on key votes. Faced (as are all governments) with more calls on its resources than it can possibly meet, the next government will have to make unpopular decisions. That is the nature of government. Will Fianna Fáil be able to back those decisions, and in turn expose its political flank to other opposition parties, especially Sinn Féin?

Under a minority government, because the executive has by definition less power, parliament as an institution becomes more powerful. This is what many advocates of political reform have sought for years. But with more power comes more responsibility – and that is not always welcome.

Additional demands

TDs – especially opposition TDs – who were once required simply to turn up to vote, will now have a much stronger say in legislation and on the policies pursued by government.

This will make significant additional demands on TDs – many of whom will feel their bums being nibbled at by councillors at home who complain that they are never there to serve their constituents.

It is not at all certain that all TDs will welcome the additional power and responsibility for the Dáil. It may be quite different to what they thought they would be doing. Their new role may also come as a surprise to their voters.

Political parties are not the only players in the business of government. The media and the Civil Service – whether they acknowledge it or not – have significant roles.

Attuned to concerns

The British study says that the civil service would need to become more “politically attuned” to the concerns of opposition, backbenchers and outside interest.

“The general lesson,” it says, “is that a hung parliament will lead to multiparty governance, even if single party government continues.”

For the media, the challenge will be to overcome its instinct to “portray ministerial concessions or defeats in parliament as failures and signs of ineffective government”.

Instead it could see them as examples of a “more inclusive and consensual form of decision-making.”

Ultimately, the message of the report is simple: a minority government requires not just a change in government: it requires a change in politics. No wonder scepticism abounds.