Eamon Ryan: Why we need a national unity government

United administration for six months could continue recent collaborative approach

Social distancing during a press briefing with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at Leinster House. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Social distancing during a press briefing with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at Leinster House. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

The extraordinary threat presented by the coronavirus requires an extraordinary policy response. We’ve already seen our Government having to order drastic steps to curtail the progress of the virus, even though we knew the severe economic and social consequences this would bring. We’ve seen the patriotism of 50,000 medics volunteering for active service, while knowing the risks they faced. We can see our young people staying home for days on end, because they know it might help their grandparents avoid getting sick.

Our political system has also stepped up by passing unprecedented legislation to give income support for those losing their jobs. We’ve for the most part acted with one voice in supporting our health officials and approving the measures they say we need to take. That is why the Green Party is calling on other political parties to consider the establishment of a national unity government for the next six months. By doing so we think we can best continue the collaborative approach that has worked so well over the last few weeks.

Public confidence is more likely to be retained if we continue this collaborative approach through the harder days ahead

The task for such a national government is clear. Firstly to resource our health system so it can care for everyone through the peak of infection. Secondly we need to start an economic recovery, which reverses the loss of jobs and tax revenue that the lockdown of society has brought. Thirdly we need to make sure such a recovery delivers certain shared long-term objectives. Any economic stimulus package should target three key goals: the development of a universal healthcare system; the building of new public housing and the creation of a low-carbon economy, which delivers a just transition.

The approach could be reviewed at the end of the six months. If it is working well, then the parties might decide to continue. If certain parties decide to leave, then there would be nothing stopping the remainder continuing to provide a stable government for the following four years.

There would be real difficulties in implementing this proposal but it could also bring real benefits. It would allow those already managing the crisis to continue in office, which is important because I think the public has confidence in what is being done. Such public confidence is more likely to be retained if we continue this collaborative approach through the harder days ahead.

Recreating the traditional divide between government and opposition just now runs the risk of bringing division on how we deliver the many other emergency measures that will be needed. In ordinary times such divisions are the sign of a good democracy but these are not ordinary times. We have seen in recent weeks the public administrative system having to present sweeping measures, in timelines which scarcely allow for effective legislative scrutiny. More urgent decisions are going to be needed in the coming months and it makes sense in such circumstances to have a range of parties directly involved in the policymaking process.

The national government would bring together the best people from across the Dáil and involve all parties in the collective proposition of solutions to get us out of an inevitable economic downturn. We are suggesting cabinet ministries be allocated on a proportionate basis and it would be up to the parties to agree quickly in advance who takes on which portfolios. This cannot take long but it is the biggest obstacle to making a national government happen.

Politics is an adversarial business and it is hard to avoid the distrust which comes from standing on opposite sides of an aisle. However, politicians overcoming such distrust is what I think the Irish public want at this time. As a country we are showing real social solidarity and collective endeavour in facing this challenge. That ‘meitheal’ spirit could be all the stronger if a national government was formed.

Hopefully in six months’ time the worst effects of the epidemic will be over and we will be starting an economic recovery. However, the extraordinary measures from these months will surely leave a lasting legacy. It might change how we value many simple things in our everyday lives. Perhaps we will keep on using online tools so we travel less and work more from home. Or we may see a radical shift in how global supply chains are designed and managed.

By working together we would give our people hope that this crisis has brought out the best in us

The question for the political system is whether the pandemic might change how we go about our own business. Will it promote populism and narrow nationalism, or will it take the shine off these divisive influences? Will it strengthen or weaken our European Union and international collaboration? Can we reshape Irish politics so we learn valuable lessons from this crisis, to help us prepare for other huge challenges coming our way in the decade ahead?

From talking to other party leaders I find that they are considering our proposal in this historical context, which is why I think there is a chance of it being agreed. We have seen our Green colleagues in Belgium recently enter into similar arrangements in their country and it seems to be working well.

The Green Party believes this approach is the right way to go in the current circumstances. We know it challenges other political parties but if approached with goodwill by every party we should be able to make progress very quickly. By working together we would give our people hope that this crisis has brought out the best in us. At this remarkable time, when we have to learn to stand apart, we would also show how we can work well together.

Eamon Ryan is leader of the Green Party

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