Gavan Reilly

thinking out loud

The case for a Grand Coalition

with 5 comments

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

5 Responses to 'The case for a Grand Coalition'

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  1. 2 quick points, Many of the mistakes Fianna Fail have made have been in part to the length of time they have been in office. the race tent in Galway for example would never have become the institution it did, if Fianna fail had not been in power for so long. If FF and FG combine imagine how long theyd be in power and how badly theyd have to really fock up before they’d be replaced? considering FF still got >22% of 1st preference votes in EU/local elections.

    Why would FG want to do this, at this point in time??

    Fiscal Student

    17 Jun 09 at 9:10 am

  2. @Fiscal Student – first of all, thanks for the comment.

    In relation to FG succumbing to the stasis of being in power for too long as FF have been, my point is that if the two were to come to power together, they’d ultimately end up merging and then factioning off into a number of splinter groups orientated by standpoint on the political spectrum. A FF-FG coalition wouldn’t last very long, but only because the parties would cease to exist (or at least that’s what I’d hope anyway).

    I suppose the same answer goes for the first point about FF getting too used to power; the two parties wouldn’t continue in their current forms. FF is already a loose coalition of different views from all around the country, housed under one party umbrella so as to safeguard their collective chance of governing. FG probably isn’t all that dissimilar. If the two parties were to get together then the pro-choice members (to pluck a random example) of each party would likely faction off into a new liberal party and not be subject to the rigidity of their current parties.


    17 Jun 09 at 9:24 am

  3. […] The case for a Grand Coalition at Gav Reilly | thinking out loud […]

  4. Your analysis of current policy positions and differences between the parties is fairly spot on. However I think the Punch and Judy nature of the relationship between the two is so deeply ingrained that it will be sometime before such a grand coalition could come about. I think it could only come about when there is absolutely no arithmetic alternative available to form a stable majority in the Dáil. I’d like to see it sooner rather than later but I’m not optimistic.

    I’d imagine it might be possible in the following circumstances:

    1. FG and Labour form next government and go along OK picking the low hanging fruit of implementing policy areas they can agree on.

    2. Following a few years of tough decisions and difficult budgets the really difficult decisions come to be made and Labour decide to make lots of noise and jump ship and dissolve the Dáil while holding the moral high ground on whatever the issue du jour is.

    3. By that stage the rise in urban areas of the wider leftist vote will likely increased further such that Labour make gains and are joined with a reasonably sized cohort of SF and assorted Socialists (SP or otherwise) such that the combined leftist membership of the Dáil comes close to 50-60).

    4. At that stage I think that the parties of the left will sense that they have more to gain from sticking together than continuing to prop up FF or FG and thus the two large parties will be forced to accept the inevitable and swallow 90 years of bitter rivalry.

    Just to note (Gav knows this anyway but I have to consider everyone else in the blogosphere)I’m a FF member – cue rotten tomatoes being thrown here. 🙂

    John Butler

    23 Jun 09 at 12:03 am

  5. In part the differences between the party’s cultures are considerably less to do with the civil war itself than they are the aftermath over the following two and half decades.
    It is often forgotten that the origins of the two parties are kind of odd. CnaG were only formed from those who were left in government and in the face of an upcoming general election. The party was forced in dealing with problems asw they stood there and then in an upfront manner rather than evolving a policy platform. They were a government that become a party. They had to favour balanced budgets for example and free trade while FF were able to. It would be overstating it to say that Cnag had to take on the role of the responsible elder brother while FF were freer to say and do as they pleased. In fact FF progressively defined their policy positions in direct opposition of what the then CnaG government was doing or failing to do. And that CnaG government was made up of people who just like those in FF had intended when in SF to do as FF promised to do, only CnaG found that the reality of government was markedly different.
    There is a view, simplistic and perhaps not wholly accurate but still, strongly held in FG that FF when the going gets tough and decisions have to be made in the nation’s interests simply cut and run. There is no foundation for trust between the parties that FF would face up to difficult decisions when even now with FF making up 90% of the government FF representatives, both national and local persist with playing at being in both government and opposition. Any FG minister in such a grand coalition would always aware that the local FF rep in his constituency would be bad mouthing him behind his back. It’s just in the nature of the political animal.
    The other thing is that FF, in its rank and file membership is not wholly a party of the right, nor even neo-liberal. It adopted policies from the neo-liberal agenda in some areas of economic when McCreevy was in charge of finance because of the PDs and the complete absence of policy from Ahern. FF are a populist party of the centre with an ideology driven by results not means. If someone could come up with a means to deliver sustainable economic growth based on the mass production of hemp or the sacrifice of old people to Thoth then it would get a hearing in FF. FG is similarly a party more of results than means but less so that FF, FG would be squeamish about the human sacrifice if only because it might make us less welcome at EPP gatherings, and the hemp thing is just one of those hippy things. It is fairer to say that FG is a conservative party in an arranged marriage with a social democratic party which appears to have been more successful that either family could have hoped for. They have their testing times but there is genuine love there.
    There is no compelling reason for national political systems to seek out the tradition left-right divide as the optimum configuration, especially when many of the underpinnings of both sides have been removed. Mass industry is long gone, as are starving children by venture of not enough money to buy food. Now poor parenting skills are the root cause of most childhood deprivation. It is often forgotten that Ireland did not have a large scale industry base at the time of independence and what heavy industry did exist was more concentrated in the north-east of the country which became Northern Ireland. So there was not easy ground for a Labour movement and the Irish voting public is basically a fairly centrist lot. Sure it suits people on the left to demand every once in a while that FF or FG conform to the most internationally prevalent match ups. But they want that because it would suit them. Fact is that as Pat Rabbitte said, you have to get the people who think Labour to vote Labour. And most of those who think Labour vote FF not FG. A grand collation would be a recipe for even more government by civil servants and would lead not to a vibrant political environment but to the Japan political set up post WWII with the LDP formed around factions and permanently in office but with MITI and the civil service in power. A form of corporate governance if you will. And I don’t think that is what people want.

    Daniel Sullivan

    8 Jul 09 at 2:32 pm

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