Wednesday, March 30, 2016
The strong media consensus that a Grand Coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was not only the only possible result from the election but that it was the only sensible result from the election has proved to be so much blather.
It would take a seismic change to overturn a political culture that has lasted for nearly eighty years. As it happens, that seismic change happened five years ago, but instead of a radical realignment of Irish politics, we got a return to the Fine Gael / Labour coalitions of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were just as ideologically similar then as now, and they certainly had numbers to form a coalition, but nobody was talking about an FF/FG coalition being either inevitable or obvious then.
Five years on, we have stalemate, as the difference between how elections are run in this country and how governments are formed are clearer than they ever have been. In theory, the voter goes to the polls with the intention of selecting a government for the country. In practice, the voter goes to forty different polls and votes for the candidate that will best represent his or her local area when it’s time for goodies to be handed out.
Hence the impasse. In the past, the dominance of the major parties has been such that the flaw inherent in the system was never exposed. Fine Gael’s loss of a TD for not building a school in Ballycarrick was made up by the gain of a TD who was passionate on the retention of the garda station in Carrigbally. Checks and balances.
Unfortunately, the slow dissolution of the two-and-a-half party system has not been matched by a likewise evolution of political awareness in the electorate. This is partly a western thing; it doesn’t seem that the US electorate are having a particularly statesmanlike moment right now either, while the Tories in the United Kingdom are pointing a gun to their own heads while threatening to shoot the hostage. Extraordinary behaviour.
But the Irish context seems worse, somehow. Not least because the country is so small, and it shouldn’t be so hard to communicate what’s actually happening. For a small country to be independent, the citizens must be more active than they have to be in the big country like the UK or Germany or the USA. In big countries, there will always be enough clever and/or informed people to keep the political show on the road. Here, we need more hands to the mast.
A second election, then, but an election like no other. This second election, if it comes soon, will be the first honest election in God only knows how long. It will be an honest election because the electorate will be eager to know just why it’s going through this all again, and this will involve asking hard questions of the politicians.
Elections are understood to be about what different parties will do if given the chance to govern. This election has been unusual in electing a substantial number of TDs who are not trying a jot to govern, or who cannot muster support because they are independents. It will be interesting see them answer the question of why anyone should vote for them next time out.
For that reason, the Taoiseach should accept that, while the people have spoken, what they’ve said is unintelligible. Therefore, they must be asked again. Enda Kenny bottled a chance at remarking the politics of the country after the 2011 election by coalescing with Labour, rather than forcing Fianna Fáil to support their own policies. It is that choice that allowed Fianna Fáil to rise again so spectacularly.
But now Enda Kenny has that rarest of things in life: a second chance. By calling a second chance he can expose the limits of clientelist system and bring the voting public to a new understanding of politics and what good governance can actually do. The people will see that they must vote for a government, rather than a county councillor with super powers.
For what it’s worth, your correspondent doesn’t expect that happen. Some sort of government will be cobbled together that will pass a budget (Berlin permitting), and then collapse in 2017, leading to the election then. But things will have moved on by then, and the moment will have passed. New politics is difficult for old politicians, after all.
And yet that hope still glimmers. Enda Kenny has a very rare chance to really make history. I hope he takes it while it’s there.