An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Monday, July 11, 2005  

Labour-Fine Gael

Everyone's been complaining about our grey weather for months. Yesterday the sun finally came out and in 27C sunshine we all immediately wilted and complained about the too sunny weather. Anyway, here is this week's ST column and I'm in a funny predicament. I filled in for Alan Ruddock and his column is usually 1400 words which I duly provided. However with the bombing coverage they had to squash it up a bit and I lost 400 words. Nevertheless I have decided that you privileged readers of this wondrous blog should get the unedited version! So. 1400 words on why I think Labour and Fine Gael should go into coalition....

ps here's link to the ST version for those who can access it.

The root of voter disillusionment with politicians is often attributed to the frequent exposure of financial and planning scandals involving our public representatives and big business. However, one of the greatest acts of political betrayal in recent times had nothing to do with money. From 1989 to 1992 Dick Spring’s ferocious attacks upon the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat government inspired a pre-Celtic Tiger electorate, weary of Fianna Fail cronyism.

Spring’s enthusiastic condemnation of all things Fianna Fail famously included accusing Haughey of being a ‘cancer in Irish politics’. His stirring speeches motivated the people and in the 1992 election, Labour justly reaped the rewards. They won 33 seats, a massive 18-seat gain. Fine Gael lost ten seats and Fianna Fail, nine. The people clearly wanted a change and expected Spring to deliver it. What the people discovered was that, contrary to the rhetoric, while Labour hated Fianna Fail, they hated Fine Gael even more. In particular, there was no love lost between John Bruton and Spring, and their post-elections discussions were disastrous.

In 1992, as the cliché warns, it didn’t matter who you voted for; the government still got in. Facilitated by Labour, we were faced with another five years of Fianna Fail in power. Despite the mid-term musical chairs that saw Fine Gael unexpectedly in government in 1994, the people did not forget what Labour did to them and the status quo was resumed in 1997. Labour lost ten seats, nine of them going back to their original source; Fine Gael. Of course, Fianna Fail remained in government, this time with the Progressive Democrats and supported by some of the Independents. Fianna Fail had developed a talent for losing elections but winning power.

The damage done by that 1992 u-turn was still affecting voter behaviour ten years later. During the 2002 general election campaign, Ruairi Quinn, one of the advocates of the coalition with Fianna Fail, refused to rule out another deal with them. Quinn’s analysis had not changed in the preceding decade. From an economic policy perspective, Labour and Fianna Fail were closer and theoretically it should be easier to formulate a shared programme for government that mollified Labour’s left wing base. What this amounted to was a naïve belief on Quinn’s part that Fianna Fail’s willingness to award big pay rises to the public sector corresponded to socialism. Judging by Bertie Ahern’s claim to be a socialist, it appears that he shares this conviction.

Those who seek to define Irish politics along economic lines would still argue that Fianna Fail and Labour are natural coalition partners. But Irish politics is not divided along economic lines but on whether one is for or against Fianna Fail. This is not a crude device with which to argue that we are still beholden to civil war politics, it’s just not a simple matter of right versus left.

Labour supporters felt they had always suffered a backlash from their periods in office with Fine Gael due to their frequent policy clashes, principally over public spending. However, these disputes were not a consequence of firmly held ideological beliefs, but of the dire economic circumstances which coincided with the Fine Gael-Labour coalitions. The first oil shock and rampant inflation came during the 1973-77 period followed by the recession of the 1980’s, made worse by the hangover of Fianna Fail’s earlier spending spree. Fine Gael’s attempts to reign in public spending were driven, not by a right-wing zeal to deprive the State’s dependents, but by sheer necessity.

The result of Quinn’s ambivalence in 2002 was that Labour’s support plateaued at twenty seats and Quinn resigned.

Meanwhile, those floating Fine Gael voters, despairing of the inevitability of yet another Fianna Fail victory, swallowed Michael McDowell’s spin. If Fianna Fail was going to get in, it was absolutely necessary that someone keep an eye on them. Socially liberal and economically right wing voters in affluent constituencies like Dublin South-East and Dun Laoighre panicked. The Progressive Democrats doubled their seats to eight and the result is that Fianna Fail has been in government for sixteen of the last eighteen years.

As one Fianna Fail TD followed the next in allegations of bribery, planning corruption, tax evasion and sheer incompetence, it will take a separate examination to find a rationale for their continued support. In the meantime, anyone who wants to see them out of government must welcome the strengthening of the Fine Gael-Labour pact through the joint statement of the leaders this week.

To date, the agreement to co-operate has certainly been a matter of style over substance. There have been no joint policy statements and Kenny’s earlier suggestion to co-ordinate candidate selection in certain constituencies was quickly brushed aside. Nevertheless, Rabbitte and Kenny are doing the right thing. With another two years before the next election they have to start the campaign now to win the confidence of a mistrustful electorate.

Fortunately, Rabbitte has managed to consolidate his leadership within the Labour party and despite a robust debate at the Labour conference in May, they voted by a significant majority to give him authority to negotiate with Fine Gael. With this mandate, he won’t have to tolerate carping from certain quarters about the strategy.

Despite the obvious lessons of the past, there were some people, most notably Brendan Howlin, who still baulked at a pre-election deal with Fine Gael. However, Rabbitte had won the 2002 contest for the Labour leadership on a platform that explicitly ruled out coalition with Fianna Fail. In fact, in the 2002 general election he made his displeasure with Quinn’s strategy clear when he announced he would refuse to take ministerial office if Labour did go into coalition with Fianna Fail. His consistent position on this issue is vital if the people are going to place their faith in an alternative government.

Because building a viable alternative is what this pact is all about. Fine Gael’s failure to get into government means that many see them as increasingly irrelevant on the political landscape.

While Fine Gael has come under pressure to define themselves, Fianna Fail appear to represent a safe pair of hands with the economy and shame about the mavericks. However, the Celtic Tiger was thirty years in the making, not three, and it is slowly dawning on everyone that a chimpanzee in government in the late nineties could have sat and watched the taxes roll in. The challenge for a government in such times was not how to create economic success, but how not to blow it. And blow it, they did. The money has been squandered on pet projects and unforgivable mismanagement.

Enda Kenny may still struggle to answer questions as to whether his party is right or left, for enterprise or for the poor, tax and spend, or just tax. To a certain extent, this identity crisis is all nonsense. Fianna Fail has never defined themselves in those terms. Their happy partnership with the reactionary PD’s could just as easily evolve into an even happier one with the Marxist Sinn Fein and no one would care.

The real and consistence difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is a sense of caution. Fine Gael is like the housewife tightly managing the housekeeping budget and ferreting spare cash away for old age. Fianna Fail is the spendthrift, always willing to buy the love of the electorate by flinging money at them.

Those who disagree will point to the excellent and crucial stewardship of the Exchequer by Ray MacSharry between 1987 and 1989. They will neglect to point out that this was a minority government maintained in power by Alan Dukes’s Tallaght Strategy which agreed to vote with Fianna Fail as long as they implemented responsible economic policy.

In the end, politics is like the stock exchange. The value of a share is based on confidence rather than the bottom line. If people think that Fine Gael could win power, they just might vote for them and the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. No one wants to vote for a loser and prior to their success in the local and European elections, Fine Gael had the smell of death about them.

The structure of our electoral system exacerbates this effect. The Dail is simply too large and the multi-seat constituency system makes it too prone to clientelism. If people are going to vote for the guy who will do a personal favour for them, then it makes sense to vote for the party with power. Since Fianna Fail were in power this was reason enough to keep them there. However with our rapid suburbanisation, there are people without a TD/client and they might be persuaded to back a different horse if the odds are good. If Rabbitte and Kenny maintain a breezy air of confidence, it might catch on. Talk the talk boys, and you could walk the walk.

posted by Sarah | 21:42 0 comments
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