Stephen Collins: FG and FF have incentive to deliver political stability
Instability is more likely to arise from panic on the part of Independents
The brave new world of Irish politics did not get off to the best of starts yesterday. Enda Kenny was elected for a second successive term as Taoiseach but only after a last-minute bout of brinkmanship by the Independent Alliance which threatened to strangle the new politics at birth.
The notion that the formation of government should be delayed by a row involving EU turf-cutting regulations linked to the ambitions of Independent TDs to become ministers does not say a lot for the new way of doing things.
If the way the Independent Alliance behaved yesterday is a sign of things to come, the life of the Fine Gael-led minority Government could be nasty and short. In fairness, messiness was hardly surprising, given the inconclusive nature of the election result.
Much of the drama and confusion that surrounded yesterday’s Dáil sitting was due not only to the inexperience of Independents at the process of government formation but to the fact that everybody involved was engaged in something entirely novel.
The atmosphere of chaos that enveloped the Dáil between noon and 2pm before Kenny was elected Taoiseach demonstrated how quickly things can spin out of control in a chamber where nobody has a clear majority.
The Independents who did vote for Kenny will now have to develop a level of discipline and coherence which is not a natural part of their make-up if the Government is going to survive.
They are also going to discover very quickly that the indulgence with which they have been treated by the media when they were in opposition will quickly evaporate. They will need to develop thick skins in the face of the slings and arrows that are bound to come their way.
If they cannot hold their nerve under media fire and learn how to defend Government policy – instead of playing to the gallery every time – they won’t survive in office for very long.
The remarkable fact that all five of the Independent Alliance who voted for Kenny will hold ministerial office at some stage in the lifetime of the Government might be the glue that holds them to Fine Gael.
Lure of office
Before yesterday the big question was whether Fianna Fáil was prepared to fulfil its side of the bargain struck earlier in the week and give the minority Government three years in office.
After the last-minute wobble by Independents, it appears that instability is more likely to arise from panic on their part rather than any plot by Fianna Fáil to bring the Government down at the first available opportunity.
One of the grounds for optimism is that it is clearly in the interests of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to make the arrangement work, even if there are still pessimists in both parties.
Curiously, more Fine Gael TDs seem to be in the pessimist camp, while Fianna Fáil TDs tend to be more optimistic. It is a strange reversal, given that Fine Gael has managed to hold on to power, despite its deeply disappointing election result, while Fianna Fáil, the ultimate party of power, is prepared to relinquish it for the moment.
Everything will depend on whether the new Government can get over its initial jitters and settle down to office with some degree of confidence. If that happens then both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have the incentive to deliver a period of political stability over the next two years.
Another term in office will give Fine Gael a chance to prove that it is a serious party of power capable of providing good government. If it can manage to avoid early banana skins, it could develop the momentum it needs to survive for at least three budgets.
The benefit for Fianna Fáil is that constructive opposition could provide the platform for the party to return to its old dominant position at the next election and put together a minority government with the backing of Fine Gael from outside.
“Both parties have everything to gain from this,” said one experienced Fine Gael TD. “If Fianna Fáil play by Marquess of Queensberry rules and honour their side of the bargain, we would have to do the same if the position is reversed after the next election and support them in office.”
The importance of the arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is that it has provided a mechanism for the centre ground of Irish politics to hold on to power without putting Sinn Féin and the hard left in the position of being the only alternative government.
It also means that small parties such as the Progressive Democrats or Greens, which dictated the political agenda in the past by holding the balance of power, can no longer wield so much influence.
There was also a lot of ill-informed comment after the general election suggesting that a huge shift to the left had taken place but the numbers simply do not bear this out. While there was certainly further fragmentation of the party system there was no dramatic shift left or right as has happened in other EU countries.
In fact, the proportion of seats won by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and centre-ground Independents in the 32nd Dáil is actually greater than that in the last Dáil while the left, including Labour, actually lost ground.
One big difference is that the left was far more fractured this time around. In 2011, the left seats split in three ways between Labour, Sinn Féin and left-leaning Independents. This time, it’s split seven ways between Sinn Féin, Labour, the AAA-PBP, the Social Democrats, the Greens, Inds4Change and left-leaning Independents.
Looked at in the longer term there is no disguising the fact that the combined Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael share of the vote has been in decline. Back in the 1980s they were getting more than 80 per cent of the vote between them, but after a slow but steady decline in subsequent decades it was down to 50 per cent in February.
Relations at Cabinet between Fine Gael and the new Independent Ministers could be more problematical. It will involve give and take on both sides and an ability to put past difficulties behind them.
Shortly after the first bout of negotiations between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance some weeks ago, Shane Ross publicly dismissed Kenny as “a political corpse”. The two men are now going to have to work together in Government whether they like each other or not.
However, it has always been the case in politics that people don’t have to like each other to work together. In fact, it has sometimes turned out that the bitterest of enemies get on very well when they had no other choice but to work together.
While almost all of the Government- supporting Independents have been fixed up with office of one kind or another, the same does not apply to Fine Gael and there were some very disappointed people in Leinster House yesterday.
There had been speculation that Kenny would go for a big clear-out and appoint a lot of new faces to the Cabinet but he has stuck by the team that stood by him in government and kept change to a minimum.
He did have room for manoeuvre with the departure of Labour from government and he has used it to bring more women into the Cabinet. While he has not fulfilled his pledge to give half of the Cabinet positions to women he has brought it up to a third, a record number for an Irish government. That is a positive step which should help to give the minority Government a fresh look, as well as bringing new ideas to the cabinet table.
In normal times a taoiseach might face some danger from frustrated younger TDs who have missed out on office again but, as Kenny has made clear, he does not intend to serve out a full term in office that hardly applies.
In fact, if the Government does settle down Kenny’s departure could turn out to be a seriously destabilising event. It would trigger a leadership contest in Fine Gael that could upset relations with the Independents and threaten the partnership with Fianna Fáil.
All that, however, is in the future. For the moment, Kenny is back at the helm which represents a remarkable achievement, given all that has happened in recent months.