Gavan Reilly

thinking out loud

Archive for the ‘coalition’ tag

The case for a Grand Coalition

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Wow, a post I’ve had sitting in my Drafts folder since late December, and an argument that I’m now finding the right time to articulate as best I’d like to.

It seems that the more we woke up from our election hangover over the last ten days, and analysed to death what the results might mean if they were to trigger a general election (and with a Dáil majority of six, why the Government would ask the country to kick it out would be beyond me), and the Sunday Tribune interestingly, but ultimately academically, wonders just how many seats Fianna Fáil would have lost if it had been a general election. All of a sudden, the opposition parties are asked not to consider, but to rule out, the prospect of coalition with Fianna Fáil.

[Edit, 11.44am: I’ve just uploaded a spreadsheet with the hypothetical results as outlined by the Tribune last Sunday. Click here to download – it’s an Excel 2003 file inside a zip folder.]

In all honestly, it’s a fallacy to claim that the Irish Civil War ended in 1923. The two main political parties that arose from the great conflict over the Anglo-Irish Treaty (as an aside, it’s odd how the words ‘Anglo-Irish’ so consistent stirs up such vitriol in the Irish public…) still thrive; Fianna Fáil, founded on the basis of opposition to Ireland’s wilful accession to the Commonwealth, only recently postponed plans to move into Northern Ireland or merge with the SDLP, while Fine Gael, the party that held together in support of Michael Collins as he took on the imperial and negotiative might of the British, rides the wave of public sympathy like never before. But one has to wonder, aside from the merit of their continuing sparring, whether there was even much point to their falling-out in the first place. It’s universally acknowledged that, fully aware Britain would not concede full republic status to Ireland, de Valera pawned Michael Collins off with the task instead, thus abdicating responsibility for the inevitable failure. Surely, then, such a problem could easily have been forseen? Either Ireland would have to take the first step towards independence or get nothing at all. Was there even much basis to get all hot-and-bothered in the first place about the fact Ireland didn’t score the impossible victory it craved? The Civil War was simply an inevitable one: neither side would ever have been happy. In fact, to this day, neither has been. Even Dev’s opinion changed over time: he later regretted the opposition to the Treaty in the first place, the very reason he had founded the Fianna Fáil party. It is a cruel irony that 86 years after the end of the Civil War, Britain’s best-case-scenario – that of a cruelly divided Irish state too busy bickering within itself to achieve real progress – lives on, in spite of a national identity that too often defines itself as being Anything But Britain.

There is a great democratic argument for a Grand Coalition, and that’s without surmising that Ireland might soon find itself just as Germany did in 2005 – with no obvious power bloc and the inevitable need for the two main parties to get over their differences in order to govern. In the last General Election, 68.8% of voters chose either of the two main parties. That’s an overwhelming majority ably described as “most people”. The time before, it was 65% – again, a safe majority. Yet, “most people” didn’t vote for Fianna Fáil in 2007 – just 41.6% of people chose to do so. Similarly, 69.1% of people chose not to give their first preference to a Fine Gael candidate. In fact, since their collective existence, there has never been an Irish general election where the parties didn’t collectively accrue at least 65% of the vote, while neither party has ever broken through the 50% barrier to claim an absolute majority of the will of the people.

Thus, these two parties cannot individually claim to have ever represented Ireland’s true will – but a Grand Coalition can, and always could. If the notion of democracy is that the people are ruled according to their will, what could be more democratic than fixing a Government that would never have enjoyed less than 65% of the electorate’s mandate?

Furthermore, let’s take a step backward and just examine Ireland’s political landscape for a moment. Are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael really all that incompatable? Are they even any different at all? What are their differing policies? Fianna Fáil’s main policy seems to be ‘We endorse any Government involving Fianna Fáil”. Fine Gael’s is ‘We endorse any Government that doesn’t involve Fianna Fáil.’ Since the parties stopped confronting their only real differences – the aforementioned Civil War – on a daily basis, their only difference has been internal culture, and the differing degrees to which the internal turf wars end up with blood being spilt. Say what you like about Fianna Fáil’s notoriously brutal conventions and the internal schism between Haughey and Colley, but you don’t hear about their parliamentary meetings ending in walkouts and blazing rows; whereas Fine Gael’s… well… The end point is that there’s no reason for the parties not to get along – they have no ideological bases from which to join, they occupy the same one. Both are centrist, right-leaning, neo-liberal parties. All they argue about is administration – use this system here, cut those quangoes there. Why not get them into a room to define a programme for Government? A Tallaght Accord for the new millennium?

It’s a sad state of affairs that in that most noble of bloodsports, politics, Ireland can’t claim to have a truly functioning democracy. Every few years we bounce along to the ballots, enthused by plans of great legacy or real social change, and end up replacing one centre-right, introverted party with another, only noticing some real change when Labour aren’t tagging along as the junior partners. Let’s get a Grand Coalition going, then let’s make Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael realise that there are no differences between them; that there is no reason why they shouldn’t shack up and become the single party they were always meant to be. God willing, they’d get it together, and then we might experience something akin to the birth of the PDs, but three- or four-fold: the Grand Fragmentation into a few different blocs, all of whom share an actual political opinion or ideology. We might finally rescue ourselves and have a political scene that uses the same colours, and opinions, and ideals, and debates as everyone else. The chance to elect a Socialist, a Liberal, or a Conservative government, and experience the unique joys and pains of each.

But no. On we trundle, periodically giving Tweedledum a time-out while Tweedledee gets a run off the subs bench, hoping to impress the bosses and win a starting spot for the next match, only to be told that we’re not picking a Government on form, but rather by moderate rotation. Maybe thinking of politics as Ireland’s favourite bloodsport isn’t all that far removed; but maybe we ought to be investigating ourselves for match-fixing on a gigantic scale.

Maybe things might change. Maybe when we next bounce along to the polls, being flooded with promises of how we’re going to ride the next economic wave in a more socially responsible way, we’ll return a combination of TDs that mean a grand coalition is the only way a government can survive. If Fine Gael’s group in the European Parliament is willing to convalesce with the group Fianna Fáil are trying to get into, why can’t they do the same domestically? Maybe next time things might change.

Maybe, just maybe.

Written by Gav

June 17th, 2009 at 7:15 am