Steeling myself for the ultimate gamble


Hedging bets on FG and Labour could result in five years of whining and hand-wringing, writes SARAH CAREY

WHEN I was single I used to host a poker game on Thursday nights. I played cards liked I played life: safely. I’d never win a lot, but I wouldn’t lose much either.

My more exciting pals put up with my dull performances because I kept the baize clean, the glasses refreshed and made BLTs at 2am. I like to think of it as good government. I created a pleasing environment that allowed the talented to flourish while the losers were comforted with food and drink.

Now that Enda Kenny has enraged the commentariat by performing successfully in the leaders’ debate, I’m allowing myself to consider how he should play his strengthened hand.

In our fragmented political landscape it seems foolish to indulge the prospect of an overall majority. Accustomed as we are to coalition, I can appreciate its merits. The requirement to check with a partner before galloping ahead with a policy introduces caution into the excitable minds of politicians high on power. Anyway, Labour is fighting the good fight – justice for the poor, integrity in governance, fairness for workers. The obvious coalition option seems not just likely, but welcome.

Then I remember the 1980s. The stakes were high and the deals with Labour precious because the phone-tapping, money-grabbing, blatant illegality of Haughey’s Fianna Fáil was the alternative. I recall John Bruton visiting my father in our staunch Fine Gael house during that time. I was just a young teenager but acutely aware of the strain he was under and the pressure to keep Labour onside. Looking back, I think that heavy atmosphere cured me of politics forever.

The cabinet members of that government all wanted to do the right thing but their different definitions of “right” crushed them. Fine Gael knew bigger cuts had to be made. Labour would never agree. No one could risk an election in case Haughey returned to power. The national debt spiralled and in the end Fine Gael’s support of the Fianna Fáil minority government, with Labour out of the equation, finally lanced the boil.

The moral of the story was that being good did not make for a good government.

Now we face the prospect where there might be a choice between Labour and “like-minded Independents”. It’s only a might, but preparing oneself for all eventualities is good government too. If the dice is rolled and there is a choice, what do we need to consider?

Everyone appears to be converging on a consensus that a European-wide solution to the banking crisis has to be on the table, so common ground can be found on banking policy. Ideological positions on other issues; public sector reform, restructuring the tax base and public spending – are what would make or break a coalition.

The conservative in me craves certainty and thus baulks at the Independents. It feels like too many egos to be placated. The trick would be to deploy them productively.

It’s going to take 10 years to reform everything; the Dáil, State appointments, pensions, banking, personal insolvency, competition, local authority funding and tax restructuring. There’s a job for every single member of the next government. If the talent is elected, then directing their energies to the work in hand should help avoid tantrums.

Yet still I’m drawn to the discipline of the party whip system.

A parliamentary party with experience of government knows better how to behave. I’d be delighted to see Ruairí Quinn and Pat Rabbitte back in government while Joan Burton has been asking all the right questions about the banks since the start. The rainbow coalition was an excellent government, so what’s to fear?

Those big issues. Despite the tiny numbers reported by the Revenue Commissioners, Burton keeps insisting that a wealthy class of people exists in sufficient numbers that an easy solution to exchequer funding is just a budget away. There is the stubborn refusal to accept that the Croke Park agreement cannot deliver either the reform or the savings needed.

I worry a Fine Gael-Labour coalition will give us five years of hand-wringing and whining, while the need to compromise will crush every initiative. We can’t do that again. If I thought we’d get Ruarí Quinn’s pragmatism over Gilmore’s kowtowing to Siptu, I wouldn’t be so concerned.

Instead the Jack O’Connor intervention shows that Labour continues to be confused about its support base. I suppose someone thought his remarks might stem a working-class bleed to Labour’s left. Instead they’ll encourage Labour’s middle class soft liberals to the right. As panic sets in the strategists should consider that attacking Fine Gael will simply accelerate the process. They’d be better off using the trade union connection as a carrot rather than a stick – a relationship to be exploited rather than a weapon to be turned on the major party of government.

If the Labour humour doesn’t improve, all they’ll do is remind us that there is nothing worse than a coalition partner afraid to act in tough times. And so one dares to think the unthinkable – the benefits of an overall majority. It might be time to go all-in. But first, a stiff drink.

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