Liam Weeks: ‘What’s it to be: minority government or Sinn Fein?’

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Liam Weeks: ‘What’s it to be: minority government or Sinn Fein?’

Those who yearn for majority government need to ask what form this would take


'If you want stable majority government, and a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael coalition is not on the cards, it may be time to consider that bringing Sinn Fein into Cabinet will soon be a necessity, no longer just an option' Photo: Mark Condren
‘If you want stable majority government, and a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael coalition is not on the cards, it may be time to consider that bringing Sinn Fein into Cabinet will soon be a necessity, no longer just an option’ Photo: Mark Condren

From the moment Enda Kenny formed a minority government with the Independent Alliance in May 2016, the knives have been sharpening among those who want an end to the “new politics” experiment.

Such critics see the current administration as weak and insipid, unable to function effectively as it kowtows to Fianna Fail and the opposition.

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But, if majority government is the panacea that many believe it to be, they need to first ask what form it will take.

While it might be difficult to predict the result of the next election, it is easier to speculate on the form of the government that will materialise, as there are only a certain number of plausible outcomes.

Neither of these are the once traditional options of a Fine Gael/Labour or Fianna Fail majority. Although the former coalition achieved this as recently as 2011, Labour has much work to do before this becomes feasible again. As for Fianna Fail, even the most diehard of the soldiers of destiny would not likely deny that its days of single-party majority government are long gone.

Of the four realistic government majorities then, the first (and only one) that will definitely have a majority between them is Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. However, given their failure to agree on a coalition in 2016, it is unlikely that they will do so next time out either.

The second option is one of Fine Gael or Fianna Fail leading a coalition comprising a left-wing combination of Labour, the Greens, the Social Democrats, and some Independents, to make a working majority of 80.

But for this government to form, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael would need to reach at least 60 seats, which could be difficult on current polling figures. And even if they did, those who desire stable majority government might not like such a working arrangement.

In 1948, a comparable coalition of Fine Gael, Labour, National Labour, Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta and Independents formed, described at the time as a ‘makeshift majority’. Imagine the headlines about unstable dolly mixtures and allsorts were a similar type government to form after the next election.

That leaves us with two other majority options – Fine Gael and Sinn Fein or Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. Neither of these combinations achieved a majority in 2016, but with a push next time out this is conceivable.

This leads to the conclusion that if you want stable majority government, and a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael coalition is not on the cards, it may be time to consider that bringing Sinn Fein into Cabinet will soon be a necessity, no longer just an option.

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While the current leaders of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have consistently ruled out this possibility, it is much easier for them to do so over a hypothetical example that has not yet materialised.

What will happen when either of these parties ultimately has the numbers to form a majority government with Sinn Fein? Will Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin be able to dismiss Mary Lou McDonald as easily? Their options then will be government with each other, or with Sinn Fein.

When the Progressive Democrats formed in the 1980s as a breakaway party from Fianna Fail, few would have countenanced the two parties forming a coalition with each other. But this is exactly what they did – less than four years after the formation of the PDs. Why? Because the numbers added up.

Following the 1989 election, neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael and Labour had a majority between them, but Fianna Fail and the PDs had exactly 50pc of seats. There seemed no other obvious arrangement to solve the electoral stalemate, and so Fianna Fail crossed the Rubicon to embrace coalition politics for the first time.

If a similar outcome arises after the next election, and the numbers point to a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition, will Fianna Fail be able to say no? The question then for the party and its grassroots will become who do they hate the most, or love the least – Fine Gael or Sinn Fein?

With Sinn Fein winning more than 20 seats in a relatively small parliament where there are already a considerable number of Independents, excluding the party from office makes finding working government combinations all the more difficult.

A similar scenario occurred in Italy and France for much of the Cold War era when the communist parties in these two countries were excluded from office. Despite often being the second largest parties in terms of electoral support, the mainstream parties coalesced to keep the communists out of government.

Their main fear then was the Russian influence, with the Soviet Union pumping millions of funding into these communist parties. The consequence of excluding the communists from power meant that the same parties remained almost constantly in government, primarily in centre-right led coalitions.

A similar outcome will ensue in Ireland, with a government comprising some kind of working arrangement between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael the only likely stable option on current figures if Sinn Fein is kept in opposition.

Of course, just as many of the respective Italian and French publics supported the exclusion of the communists from their national governments, so, too, there is a considerable cohort of the Irish electorate who don’t want Sinn Fein in power.

And so, before there are post-election discussions in which the public will have no say, perhaps it is time to have pre-election discussions so Fianna Fail and Fine Gael can sound out the electorate on this issue. This would increase the accountability and transparency of whatever decision the parties ultimately make. In other words, it would give them a mandate to bring Sinn Fein in, or keep them out, of office.

Given the enormity of what Sinn Fein’s entry into government would mean for Irish politics, it is far better to have this discussion now when the electorate have a choice, than when it becomes a decision of the parties in post-election bargaining in once smoke-filled rooms. If and when this happens, the detractors of the current regime may well wonder what was really so wrong with minority government and new politics.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc in Government and Politics at UCC

Sunday Independent


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