Eamon Gilmore: Labour needs Fianna Fáil guarantee government would last

Only reason for party to join minority government would be to implement key policies, but these take time

The Fine Gael-Labour cabinet meets shortly after the 2011 election: “In 2011, the formation of a new government was urgent and crisis-driven . . . But the current, unprecedented delay in forming a government is due not just to the absence of a crisis.” Photograph: Maxwells

The Fine Gael-Labour cabinet meets shortly after the 2011 election: “In 2011, the formation of a new government was urgent and crisis-driven . . . But the current, unprecedented delay in forming a government is due not just to the absence of a crisis.” Photograph: Maxwells

 

Within a week, five years ago, Labour and Fine Gael had agreed a programme and structure for the last coalition government. So why has the 32nd Dáil been unable to do in eight weeks what the 31st could do in fewer than eight days?

In 2011, the formation of a new government was urgent and crisis-driven. There could be no “acting government”, because all but two of the outgoing ministers, including the then taoiseach, had either not contested or had lost their seats in the general election. The country was almost bankrupt, jobs were being lost in their thousands, deposits were flowing out of the banks and the troika was lodged in Merrion Street. Two critical European meetings were due within days, and the bank stress tests were due to report within three weeks. There was simply no time for prolonged negotiation.

But the current, unprecedented delay in forming a government is due not just to the absence of a crisis. It is because the majority of the TDs who were elected eight weeks ago do not wish to take on the responsibility of governing. Normally there is intense competition for the right and privilege to govern. But this time most TDs want the poisoned chalice to pass and for somebody else to form a government, so that they can then oppose it. Some on the left have even made the politically absurd call for the formation of a right-wing government. All the better to oppose, presumably.

It is impossible to construct a coalition of the unwilling. The country has elected an opposition but not a government. But for an opposition to function there has to be a government – any kind of government, it appears, even one that cannot command a majority in the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil now appears willing to abstain in the votes to elect a taoiseach and government, which reduces the threshold required to 58 TDs. Some are now looking to the Labour Party to again act in the national interest and to deliver the necessary number.

But why should it? Repeatedly, and often to its own electoral disadvantage, the party has put the country’s interests first. Doing so to give the country a stable, progressive government is one thing, but doing so to enable others, who have repudiated their own mandate to govern, to indulge in opposition makes no sense for the country or for the party.

Enlarged opposition

Any minority government will become the target of the enlarged opposition, which will question its very legitimacy and which can pull it down at any time. Labour will again be the prime target.

The only reason for it to consider participating in a minority government would be to implement key Labour priorities. But these would take time. Is Fianna Fáil prepared to give a new minority government the time required?

Take housing. It seems that every TD, of every persuasion, regards the housing shortage and homelessness as priorities for the next government. A major programme of social and affordable housing will take 2½ to three years to deliver, between site selection, planning, design, public procurement, construction and fit- out. If Labour got Fine Gael to agree such an ambitious plan for housing, would Fianna Fáil, or others, refrain from no- confidence motions in the Dáil for the period required to implement it? And would they support the budgets that would be needed to finance it?

Would they similarly allow the time for the living wage to be phased in, say two years, if Labour persuaded Fine Gael to agree to it? Fine Gael has already committed to setting up some kind of assembly to consider the Eighth Amendment. Would Fianna Fáil agree not to topple the government at least until that body had reported and Labour in government had the time to at least formulate the proposal that would be put to the people in a referendum?

A minority government does not have to win every Dáil vote. Under the Constitution, the taoiseach is obliged to seek a dissolution of the Dáil only if the government loses a confidence vote or a vote on a financial measure. The new Dáil will be able to exercise greater power on legislation, and that I believe, will be good for parliamentary politics.

It is possible to have budgets and finance Bills agreed on a cross-party basis through Dáil committees, and that will result in parties and TDs having to set out what they are for, on taxation and expenditure. But will the majority of the Dáil that will not be participating in the minority government be willing to hold back on proposing and voting for no-confidence motions in relation to the government? And that includes no-confidence motions in individual ministers, since the taoiseach is unlikely to allow one of his ministers to be sacrificed.

Stated time period

If Fianna Fáil is to allow a minority government to be formed it will need to give that government a stated time period to implement agreed policies. And any party or Independent contemplating participation in that government would need to know that time frame and to be confident it would be honoured. Otherwise the new government will be just a hostage to a majority opposition, and that could not last for long.

But neither can the uncertainty. The country has been fortunate that no big issue has yet arisen requiring attention by a stable government. Or perhaps it has and we just haven’t heard about it yet, and in this period of drift the seeds of the next economic crisis are already germinating.

Eamon Gilmore is a former tánaiste and Labour Party leader

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