Pat Leahy: Small parties seem intent on fleeing from government

Dáil arithmetic puts Greens and Social Democrats in pivotal positions

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. Photograph: Eric Luke

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

It’s a task suited to lockdown: I have spent recent days re-examining the 2020 general election campaign. It is like reading dispatches from another time.

This is not yet evidence of coronavirus-desperation (though the home schooling might get us all there before long) but rather an exercise in gathering material for a chapter in the latest edition of How Ireland Voted, the pointy-headed academics’ analysis of the election, due to be published later this year. I’ve also been interviewing many of the dramatis personae (over the phone, alas, rather than at lengthy lunches) to get their account of the events of January-February and the manoeuvring that led up to polling day on February 8th.

In passing one might observe that Leo Varadkar’s decision to hold the election in February was not, with the benefit of hindsight, the best one he has ever made. Fine Gael’s impressive record of mistiming its general elections continues.

Our political debate, often incautiously curated, too often rewards hyperbole. It had free rein during the election

Needless to say, the perspectives offered by the participants differ greatly. But in the light of events since, they agree on some things, too. Kate O’Connell, the former Fine Gael TD who lost her seat, spoke for many of them on Brendan O’Connor’s radio show last Sunday when she recalled canvassing during the campaign. “One of the arguments I heard on the doors was, ‘Our lives can’t get any worse.’” O’Connell was uncharacteristically reticent when she offered as a commentary on this, a mere “Hmmm.”

It now seems ridiculous that people were saying that things couldn’t have got any worse for them. But in the context of the time, it didn’t seem ridiculous to people living in difficult circumstances, who were dissatisfied with the efforts of the Government to ameliorate them. But “couldn’t get any worse”? Our political debate, often incautiously curated, too often rewards hyperbole. It had free rein during the election.

It’s an extreme example, of course, but it does demonstrate how important context is in politics: the proposition that is impossible in one context suddenly becomes inevitable when the context changes. There are no true red lines, only temporary ones. This is true now, and it will be true in the future.

The lesson to learn for whatever politics comes after corona is not that people should cop on and get a bit of perspective (though perhaps some of them should), it’s that the problems that seemed intractable – housing, health and so on – are not at all intractable: they are solvable with strong government action and smart politics.

Which in a roundabout way brings us to the Green Party, and to everyone else currently running a mile from government. That includes the Social Democrats, strangely absolved of any responsibility to play a role in government. Gary Gannon, a bright and able community representative who could make a fine TD, this week demanded that the Green Party get itself into government “to influence or mitigate the environmentally negative policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael”. No mention of the Social Democrats’ responsibility.

The Labour Party claims with justifiable pride to have been the party always willing to serve, even at cost to itself, because that has been the right thing to do. Now it says that it won’t do so this time because it might get hammered again at the next election.

I can’t quite decide whether the Green Party’s reluctance to enter government stems from political opportunism or just a lack of courage. Whichever it is, the party is turning its back on an opportunity to bring about a step change in climate policy and wield unprecedented power at the centre of government across a range of policy areas. Given that the recent election demonstrated pretty unequivocally that Irish voters don’t give much of a hoot about climate change, I wonder when the Greens think they’ll get a chance like this again.

The inclusion of one of the small parties – if not quite numerically essential – is certainly desirable and politically advisable

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are edging towards a deal that will become real in a few weeks if the pandemic does not turn into an Italian-style disaster and destroy the current government and any chance of a similar successor. If the worst happens, as noted hereabouts before, our politics will change rapidly and radically. For one thing, the exclusion of Sinn Féin is unlikely to be sustainable in that scenario. I wonder if the party views this prospect with much enthusiasm.

It is not an endorsement of that option to say that as long as the two old big parties insist on excluding the new big party – and they will not abandon that policy unless events force them to – then the tyranny of the Dáil arithmetic means that the only government possible is based on that historic alignment. But the numbers are the same for everyone and the inclusion of one of the small parties – if not quite numerically essential – is certainly desirable and politically advisable. This puts the small parties in a potentially pivotal position; it confers great power on them right now. They seem to be intent on fleeing from it.

Of course no party that is thinking of the next election should go into government right now. The prospects for such an administration are beyond daunting. Only those that actually want to play a part in rebuilding the country, in making it a better place, in bettering the lives of its citizens, in sacrificing their political fortunes for the public good, should apply for this one. The queue is not exactly a long one. Sometimes, you’d wonder what the election was about after all.

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