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Fintan O’Toole: FF and FG have produced a colouring book for adults

Post-coronavirus era will demand a radicalism the old parties are not trained for

There has been a trend for colouring books for adults. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the self-declared "historic" coalition plan published by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael last week. After many weeks of intensive labour, they issued a colouring book – 24 pages of idyllic scenes drawn in rough outline. They then passed the crayons to the Greens, the Social Democrats and the Labour Party: please colour in these pictures. A bit of green here? Perhaps some red on the fringes? Lots of pink. Whatever you like – so long as the tax stuff stays nice and blue. And do be sure to keep within the lines of familiar orthodoxy.

We live in surreal times, so maybe the strangeness of this gesture is to be expected. But that does not make the moment any less weird. The flimsiness of the document is essentially an admission that the two parties that between them have led every government in the history of the State are lost for words. They are tongue-tied because they are also lost for ideas. There is an intellectual vacuum in the centre of Irish politics. The dilemma for the smaller parties is to figure out whether they are being offered a golden opportunity to fill a hole or are being beckoned into a swamp.

The vacuum is created by the collision of two forces. It is long overdue. But it also creates a huge problem of self-definition. The Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael duopoly generated its own answers to the teasing questions of political identity. By far the most important marker of who these parties are has been: we're not that other shower. Sigmund Freud could have coined the phrase "the narcissism of small difference" for these just-about-non-identical twins. But when the small difference vanishes, what remains?

Corona communism

The bigger force is, of course, the advent of corona communism. The pandemic is transforming the relationship between the State, society and the economy. The public realm has expanded to an extent that even the hard left would scarcely have thought feasible a few months ago. The Government is paying private-sector wages. Disregarded people have become “key workers”. The dramatic revelation of our utter interdependence has destroyed the allure of rugged individualism. Priorities have changed – we are getting a terrible lesson in what really matters and what doesn’t. A sense of the fragility of our place in the natural world – our existence as just one part of a much larger complex of living things – has been brought home to us.


Misplaced military metaphors have dogged public discussion of the pandemic. But there is one sense in which the wartime analogies are useful: as we gradually surface, it will be into in a kind of postwar world. The old economy will be shattered and states, including ours, will be in the business of collective rebuilding.

The historic precedent for this effort is, in fact, quite an optimistic one. The postwar period of 1945 to 1979 in the West was the greatest era of progress for ordinary people in the history of humanity. The terrible shock of totalitarianism and war forced governments to ask: what do people need if democracy is to survive? The answers were obvious: public housing, free education, national health services, full employment, steadily reducing inequality. The same question and the same answers will dominate in the post-coronavirus world, with the twist that ideas of full employment will now be inextricable from the urgent need for a Green economic revolution.

Left-wing and radical

Thus, the next Irish government will be the most left-wing and environmentally radical in the history of the State, not by choice but of necessity. The paradox is that it will be led by two conservative parties. There is a wild disjunction between what the government must do and who will lead it. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have relentlessly refused for a century to create a national health service. Fine Gael’s “seven tests” for a new government, set out just last week, didn’t even mention housing or homelessness. Asking these parties to carry through the kind of transformative programme the new order demands is like entering a showjumper for the Grand National. They are not trained for it.

And there is a sense that they know this themselves – hence the colouring book. The pictures in it are the vague outlines of a social democratic and environmentally responsible Ireland: universal healthcare, affordable housing for all, a Green new deal. It draws shapes meant to represent the new values of the coming era: community, solidarity, fairness, sustainability. But it pleads for others to fill them in and make them realistic.

The logic of this gesture is not a centre-right coalition with a few appendages. It is a genuinely inclusive national government, underpinned by a new social dialogue and reinvented mechanisms of political accountability. The new social contract it calls for cannot be merely a matter of filling the old pictures with different shades. For these times, we will have to draw new lines.