Diarmaid Ferriter: A survival guide for coalition government in Ireland

Successful coalitions need a common purpose, and smaller parties must prioritise

For all the talk of new dawns, the idea of FF and FG sharing power is not unprecedented. Photograph: Alan Betson

For all the talk of new dawns, the idea of FF and FG sharing power is not unprecedented. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Clearing a path to power through the fog of bluster and righteousness about change and mandates will exercise political minds for some time as the new dispensation is digested and coalition options teased out or danced around.

During the formative decades of the State, Fianna Fáil established such electoral dominance that it regarded coalition as contemptuous. When Fine Gael, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, the Labour Party and the National Labour Party, supported by six Independents, came together to form a coalition in 1948 with considerable speed, it was derided by FF’s Seán Lemass as a “makeshift majority” and by outgoing taoiseach Éamon de Valera as a “fraud against democracy”.

If there is to be a broad coalition, there will still be accusations of 'fraud against democracy'

After 16 years in power it had not dawned on FF it had lost an election and it anticipated, even the day before FG’s John A Costello was elected taoiseach, that it could sustain a minority government with support from some Labour TDs.

What mattered most in forming that coalition, the most disparate we have had, was the combined thirst of the opposition to get FF out; in that sense, it was relatively straightforward for strange ideological bedfellows to enthusiastically combine. As historian Joe Lee has wryly noted, “a common enemy covers a multitude of differences”. It thus helped that it was FF against the rest, or as FF handler PJ Mara put it decades later in another context, “FF versus the universe”.

There is no such sense of that now given the balance of party support, but if there is to be a broad coalition, there will still be accusations of “fraud against democracy” because there will be no agreement as to what constitutes a mandate for government. Should parties that lost seats be in the running for power? Should a party that gets a quarter of the national vote be driving government? What rights do Independents or smaller parties have to governing influence?

FF went further than swipes against its opponents by trying to get rid of proportional representation in 1959 and 1968, both referendums resulting in defeat. It argued the case in 1968 that with the straight vote system “you will be sure that your vote is used to elect the candidate you want instead of benefitting a man you do not want as has happened with PR [proportional representation]”.

Patronising the electorate in this way was unwise, especially given contemporary research highlighting that with the straight vote FF would get 70 per cent of the seats on 40 per cent of the vote, widely regarded as a potential “fraud against democracy”.

At a later stage, FF contended that non-participation in coalition was a “core value”, but at the very time FF’s Pádraig Flynn was trumpeting this position during an RTÉ radio interview in 1989, his party leader Charles Haughey was ensconced in a meeting with the Progressive Democrats leader Des O’Malley, indicating he would concede two cabinet posts to the PDs. Asked by a backbencher how he would sell this to cabinet colleagues, Haughey barked “they are only a crowd of gobshites”.

As is suggested by the 1948-51 experience, emphasising ideological 'purity' in a hybrid government can lead to destabilisation

Many who supported Labour in 1992 when the party won 33 seats were perturbed at its decision to govern with FF, but arguments about stability, national interest and putting manners on arrogant, long-time dominators of politics were marshalled. In truth, given our electoral system, and recent political fragmentation, we really do not know what government we are voting for.

For all the talk of new dawns, the idea of FF and FG sharing power is not unprecedented. FG leader Alan Dukes had a chat with Haughey in 1989 about the possibility of such a grand coalition. The price for Dukes’s support was seven out of 15 cabinet posts and a revolving taoiseach. I suspect Haughey’s private reaction to that involved the use of even stronger expletives than “gobshites”.

While the numbers game has changed dramatically the historical experiences remain relevant to possible coalition formation and assessing what can be realistically achieved. Smaller parties require a strong sense of what they must or need to prioritise. Clann na Poblachta lost eight of its 10 seats coming out of the 1948 coalition, paying a price for vicious internal disputes, no shortage of arrogance and what its own Noël Browne characterised as its “utopian wooliness”. Browne also admitted in his memoir that he was not quite sure what the party stood for.

As is also suggested by the 1948-51 experience, emphasising ideological “purity” in a hybrid government can lead to destabilisation, and considerable skill is needed to manage inter-party relationships effectively, something Costello managed well given the scale of his task.

The Labour party in that government also brought considerable focus and action to its main priority: building houses. A brochure produced by the coalition proudly announced Ireland is Building, inaugurating a 10-year plan to build 110,000 houses. A slogan, surely, for our times too.

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