Pat Leahy: Five reasons a government of national unity is a bad idea
Having everyone in government would make decision-making harder, not easier
At a superficial level, the GNU sounds great: it is the political equivalent of the round of applause for the healthcare workers. Photograph: Alan Betson
We are in the midst of an unprecedented national crisis, and the calls for a government of national unity, an administration including representatives from all parties and groups in the Dáil, are understandable. But here are five reasons why a government of national unity would be a bad idea:
1. Having everyone in government would mean decision-making was harder, not easier. One of the arguments made in support of a government of national unity is that it would mean the government could act quickly and decisively in the current crisis. That is the opposite of what would happen. The cabinet would contain people of completely different political viewpoints and philosophies who would – naturally and entirely legitimately – have different ideas about how the government should respond to the crisis. The process of reaching agreed conclusions in such a group – with no recognised leader to whose authority its members are subject – is necessarily a trickier and more time-consuming business.
There should be an opposition to the government in the Dáil. That is where ministers are held to account
2. Even if it was desirable, it would take too long to put together right now. The peak of the virus outbreak is coming, senior officials expect, around or before Easter. Do you honestly think that bringing together Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit, Solidarity, the rural Independents, the regional Independents, Independents for Change and non-aligned Independents is feasible before then? Or even shortly afterwards? It’s not like progress has been rapid between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and there is little policy difference between them.
3. There should be an opposition to the government in the Dáil. That is where ministers are held to account, where they are scrutinised, where they have to win majorities for their policies and actions. A government in which the debates and decisions take place behind the gates of Government Buildings, and behind the constitutional veil of cabinet confidentiality, is one whose power is not properly scrutinised. At a time when we are granting unprecedented powers to the government over our personal and economic liberties, that is not the right way to go. Government is meant to be executive; parliament is meant to be representative. Proponents talk about the d’Hondt system that allocates executive roles in Northern Ireland. But the point of the Northern Executive is less to govern than simply to be in government together. That is not the position in the South.
4. Let’s say a government of national unity was put together. It would be for a limited time – say six months, or a year at most. When it came to an end, it would be followed by a general election. The fact is that much of the time would be spent positioning and preparing for a general election. This is unavoidable. The result is that the government would be unable to make difficult budgetary decisions, leaving the State in a far worse position for the next government – assuming any party would be willing to take on that task.
Politics would not be left at the door of the cabinet room. That is not how politics or politicians work. They take politics seriously, and their political views inform their responses and decisions. The idea that politicians would leave their politics aside as if it was some kind of game is actually demeaning of politics, and of politicians.
5. Nobody wants it anyway. Except, apparently, the Greens. And their leader wanted to join a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition before his new TDs nobbled him. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are solidly against the idea. Sinn Féin doesn’t want to say so of late, but it is too. There is a related point about the proposed composition of the government of national unity, and there is no getting around it: some of the supposed participants in this government of all the talents have consistently demonstrated that they are not interested in the realpolitik of government, where the task is often to choose between the bad and the worse, not between the good and the bad. This is especially pertinent at this time, where politicians may have to make – literally – life and death choices, and where speed may be of the essence.
Almost nobody I know with direct real-world experience of how government works – especially those who have been there during a crisis – believes in the idea
Here’s a simple thought experiment: look at the far-reaching decisions made by this Government in the past two weeks. Do you really think that they would have been easier to reach with a government made up of 10 or 11 different groups? Really?
The government of national unity would be good at making easy decisions, but it wouldn’t be very good at making hard ones. The hard decisions will come after as well as during this crisis. The State has just resolved to borrow an awful lot of money; that will have to be paid for. Expenditure will have to be brought down again. Already people in Government are peering around the corner to an emergency budget with tax increases and spending cuts in some areas. Take one: when the worst of the virus has passed, there will still be a lot of people unemployed; they will not relish being moved from their special Covid-19 payment (€350 a week) to the regular unemployment benefit (€203).
At a superficial level, the government of national unity sounds great: it is the political equivalent of the round of applause for the healthcare workers. If John Lennon did politics: imagine all the politicians, working in harmony.
Almost nobody I know with direct real-world experience of how government works – especially those who have been there during a crisis – believes in the idea. They just think it won’t work. But it does sound great, so certain types of politicians, as well as columnists and commentators, love it. Not this one.