Social media has been weighing in on the news of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agreeing an historic framework for government. Against many welcoming messages, several political activists have engaged in well-rehearsed abuse, painting both parties as the same, and framing Ireland as a political and economic backwater for which “FFG” is responsible.
Yes, it is true that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the second and third oldest parties in the State, have dominated politics for much of the past century (along with the positive contributions of the oldest party, Labour). Like all political parties, there are things in our pasts that we would have preferred did not happen. But both parties have built a country where there is unprecedented levels of educational opportunity, where business has been able to flourish and where employment has been created, and where we have truly taken our place among the nations of the world. Ireland is a country with a high standard of living, opportunities and a very good quality of life. We are not an economic basket case, such as Venezuela, that some believe we should emulate.
That is not to say that we don’t have challenges and we accept more needs to be done - in housing, in healthcare, in sustaining rural Ireland.
It is certainly the case that there are strongly different views in both our parties on how we address some of these challenges. But Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both believe in contributing to and defending our democracy and a belief that the centre must hold in a world facing enormous disruption. It should be remembered that Ireland is Europe’s fourth oldest continuous democracy and that half a century ago, the majority of Europe’s nations were governed by totalitarian regimes.
We have seen the rise of populism globally in recent years. Increasing authoritarianism and human rights abuses in China, Russia, Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary and Poland should be a warning to us about the dangers of extremes.
Contrast our relatively stable democracy with recent events in Britain or the United States, and we can at least appreciate the benefit of having two centrist parties that are willing to work together and conduct public debate in a civil manner. Those of us in the centre have a responsibility to stand up for the noble profession of politics and politicians who are willing to take difficult decisions.
We need to call out populist sloganeering, bots online that hurl abuse and those who disseminate fake news. That does not mean that our political parties should not be held to account but it should be on the basis of fact and policy.
Facing the Covid19 pandemic, people are worried about the welfare of their loved ones along with losing jobs and businesses. We need parties that want to and are willing to govern as we face into uncertain times.
Whilst the election in February did not deliver a clear result, it did show that people want a change in how we manage our economy and how society benefits as a result. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have entered into discussions to form a power sharing government as both parties recognise the need for an administration to tackle the huge challenges we face and that radical action is needed.
Critics to this approach decry the audacity of politicians willing to govern and steer Ireland through a period of unprecedented challenge. Our detractors are very good at highlighting issues which we all agree need solving, but when it comes to the reality of improving the lives of the people we all represent, talk is cheap.
There is resistance in both of our parties to going into power. This is partly because of genuine differences in policy, partly because of history but much to do with a desire to ensure that in any power sharing agreement, that the identity of each individual party remains clear and our policy priorities can still be expressed. We will individually be insisting that there are mechanisms in our respective parties to ensure input into any deal and also policy development if in government.
Any agreement will not be a case of Micheál and Leo like Romeo and Juliet thinking that romance will blossom - getting a deal through will require the Montagues and Capulets all coming around a table first and hammering something out.
Whether or not a deal is done, from now on, both parties will be more assertive against unsubstantiated attacks from those on the fringes, will stand up for responsible politics, and will ensure that the centre holds.
Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Senator from Wexford and John McGahon is a Fine Gael Senator from Louth.