Fianna Fáil may beat a retreat to opposition benches


INSIDE POLITICS:It is difficult to see how a Government without a mandate can continue in office for very much longer, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

IF THE outcome of the elections on June 5th is anything like the result of the latest Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll, a political earthquake is in the offing. There is no telling what the landscape will look like in the aftermath.

Unless there is some dramatic reversal of fortunes in the next three weeks Fianna Fáil will slip into second place in a national election for the first time in 80 years. Even worse for the party, the indications are that it will end up trailing far behind Fine Gael in terms of its share of the popular vote.

Such a beating will call into question the future of Taoiseach Brian Cowen, and the future of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition. It is simply difficult to see how a Government without a mandate can continue in office for very much longer, particularly in the throes of such a deep economic recession.

Fianna Fáil has been such a dominating force in Irish politics for so long it is impossible to calculate how it will react to a setback of this severity but some questioning of the leader’s position is almost inevitable.

At a deeper level, though, there has to be a question mark over the party’s future in Government. The real problem is whether the party, which has ruled the country for the past 12 years, and played such a role in the creation of the bubble economy, is capable of mobilising public support to face up to the deep problems created by the bursting of that bubble.

People at all levels in Fianna Fáil are already beginning to wonder if it is not suicidal to continue in Government for the foreseeable future, implementing policies that are so deeply unpopular. While most of his TDs know that Cowen is correct to say these policies are necessary, given the state of the public finances, there is a growing feeling that it might be better to let the chalice pass to somebody else.

Fianna Fáil’s unique ingredient over the past 80 years or so has been its will to win and retain power. That will has been sapped since it won its third successive election two years ago. It started with the tawdry scandal of Bertie Ahern’s personal finances that forced his resignation but it really developed as the economic and financial crisis engulfed his successor, almost from the moment he took up the reins of power.

Never has the party been beset by so many difficulties and most of its TDs rue the day they won the last election.

Everybody in politics knows that next year’s budget will be even more difficult than any of the measures produced to date. Tackling the public service pay bill and the social welfare bill can hardly be avoided and neither can new revenue raising measures like property tax, third level fees or a tax on child benefit. How a battered Fianna Fáil will be in a position to devise such a hair shirt budget and then implement it, is anybody’s guess.

While nobody in Fianna Fáil has publicly articulated it, there is a school of thought that the best option would be to get out of office as soon as possible, beat a retreat to the opposition benches and see how Fine Gael and Labour cope with the crisis. The question is how that retreat can be achieved in some semblance of order without the loss of too many seats.

One obvious option would be to pick a new leader who could at least engage in a damage limitation exercise. He or she would have the excuse to go to the country in late summer or early autumn to seek a mandate to govern before the next budget has to be produced. The inevitable outcome would be a defeat for Fianna Fáil but if the losses could be minimised it would be an attractive option for those TDs who survived.

The poll findings for the four European election constituencies demonstrate that, even on a bad day, prominent Fianna Fáil figures are capable of attracting a significant vote. It shows that an early general election need not be an unmitigated disaster for the party and it could make it to the Opposition side of the Dáil in good enough shape to fight another day.

The Green Party also features in this equation. If the party takes a bad beating in the local elections and does equally badly in the European contest its will to remain in office may also be sapped. While a general election and a potential wipe out would not be an attractive option, a withdrawal from Government on an issue of principle might be the party’s last hope of escape. The construction of the next budget could be the pretext for a diplomatic exit.

The other side of the coin is that while the Opposition parties are all capitalising on the weakness of the Government, significant differences are beginning to emerge about how to respond to the economic crisis. Fine Gael accepts in principle that the public finances have to be restored to health before there is any prospect of economic recovery. Even though the party is not spelling out the detail of the pain that will have to be inflicted, it has not dodged the principle that it is necessary.

By contrast Labour not only refuses to spell out the details of any cuts that might be necessary, it is insisting that the public finances are not the central issue and that the Government should come forward with a jobs stimulus package. On the banks there is also a difference of views with Labour arguing for outright nationalisation and Fine Gael opposing it.

While an early election would almost certainly give Fine Gael and Labour a comfortable majority between them, they would have serious difficulties agreeing a programme for government. The real danger is that they might agree on a compromise programme that put the really difficult decisions on the long finger.

One great advantage any new government will have is a mandate to take action but, if that is frittered away, it could quickly become as discredited as the current coalition. The stakes have never been higher for all of those engaged in political life, because the country is in desperate need of a government with credibility and authority, that is capable of inspiring people to make the sacrifices necessary for our future prosperity.