Dan O’Brien: ‘We’re on the road to becoming ungovernable – and that’s the wrong road’

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Dan O’Brien: ‘We’re on the road to becoming ungovernable – and that’s the wrong road’

The 33rd Dail may turn out to be as fragmented as the current one – which does not augur well for effective government


'If any party gets as many as 60 seats in the next 160-seat Dail, it will be doing well.' Stock picture
‘If any party gets as many as 60 seats in the next 160-seat Dail, it will be doing well.’ Stock picture

A general election is coming. It could take place as early as May. How will it change the current political configuration and what might the consequences be for politics and policy-making?

Among the predictions that can be made with more confidence than most is that there will be a lengthy delay between the next election and the formation of the next government. If it were to take longer than the 10 weeks that it took in 2016 – the longest delay ever – it would be no surprise. It could run to many months.

Lengthening periods between elections and government formation are becoming a feature of European democracy. After the federal election in 2017, parties in Germany took six months to put an administration together, the longest ever. The Dutch in their last election, also in 2017, broke their previous record, too, taking seven months to cobble a coalition together. In Spain, politicians failed to form a government after the December 2015 election. Having broken their own record, Spaniards went back to the polls in June 2016. It is not inconceivable that the next Dail will fail entirely to produce a government.

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The growing difficulties forming governments is a direct result of another increasingly common feature of modern democracies – vote fragmentation.

Across Europe, and in countries with proportional representation voting systems in particular, parties are proliferating. In many cases, the big centre-left and centre-right parties which once dominated are in decline. Ireland is no exception. The structural decline in support for Fianna Fail is particularly important in relation to government formation.

Having been the best-supported party in 24 consecutive elections, it was never more than a few seats from a majority, even after its poorest performances over that 75-year period. Fianna Fail’s decimation at the 2011 election was a milestone moment in Irish political history. But it is important to note that the structural decline in its support pre-dated the crash.

The elections of 2002 and 2007 took place in extraordinary circumstances. Few governments anywhere in the democratic world had ever been in a position to deliver huge increases in public spending, while at the same time cutting taxes. Despite presiding over this bonanza, Fianna Fail managed to win only around 40pc of first preferences – historically it averaged 45pc. Now, a decade on from the crash, opinion polls still show Fianna Fail struggling to reach 30pc support.

Those same polls show that the next Dail is likely to be less fragmented than the current one. But defragmentation will be limited, if it happens at all, a major shock, such as a no-deal Brexit, could transform the political landscape.

In the absence of a shock, Fianna Fail will garner fewer votes than in any of the 24 elections up to 2007. Polls show that the Labour Party has been consistently at rock bottom. Even if Leo Varadkar turns out to be a better campaigner than his predecessor, Fine Gael got transfers from Labour voters – its then coalition partner – in 2016. That gave the party more seats than it expected. It is very unlikely to enjoy the same sort of transfer patterns – and therefore seat bonus – at the next election.

If any party gets as many as 60 seats in the next 160-seat Dail, it will be doing well. With yet another highly fragmented Dail, what sort of government will eventually be cobbled together? There is very little appetite in Fianna Fail to continue the current confidence and supply arrangement. There will be even less appetite to offer a new one if the party comes second to its civil war rival for the third election on the trot. That makes a repeat of the current arrangement among the less likely outcomes after the next elections.

If Fianna Fail is the largest party in the 33rd Dail, Fine Gael would come under huge pressure to offer the same confidence and supply terms to its rival that it has enjoyed since 2016. But something big would have to change in levels of party support for that outcome, so it is also unlikely.

The general view of insiders from across the parties is that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will both first attempt to woo the Labour Party, the Greens, the Social Democrats and the non-hard left independents. That could become quite an auction, and Fianna Fail may be better positioned to win over left-of-centre parties and independents than Fine Gael.

The next Government will be constrained by EU budget rules. The only politically realistic way, to increase significantly, resources for programmes such as home-building would be for taxes to go up – the EU rules don’t constrain governments in tax cutting or spending increases, but they do constrain using deficit financing to fund them.

Fianna Fail would be more comfortable committing to a higher tax and spend programme than Fine Gael (although there is not much in it). A multi-party coalition, led by Fianna Fail, and supported by a confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael, is one of the more likely outcomes of the next election.

If, after weeks and possibly months of talks, an arrangement of this kind cannot be agreed, the option of a straight coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, with a rotating Taoiseach arrangement, will move up the agenda. The degree to which the two parties rule out a tie-up with each other before the coming election, as they did before the last election, will be of significance. But a grand coalition of the two civil war parties is closer than it has ever been.

And then there is Sinn Fein. One intriguing development is the decline in opposition to the idea of coalition with Sinn Fein in Fine Gael. The notion of giving the IRA’s Army Council a say in the running of the Irish State remains anathema to some in the party, but conversations last week with a range of people, in and near Fine Gael, suggest that it will be seriously entertained after the next election, particularly if it gave the two parties a solid majority.

Part of the explanation for the changing views in Fine Gael is time and a generation shift, with younger members having no personal memory of the Troubles. Another factor is the familiarisation effect: mixing in larger numbers over a lengthening period of time in Leinster House has shifted attitudes.

By contrast, the chances of a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition may have dimmed. Again, there are a number of reasons why that might be the case. First, the formalisation of the party’s relationship with the SDLP would complicate coalescing with that party’s great rival. Second, the growth in support for Sinn Fein has deepened the rivalry between the parties. Third, given the overlap in their voting bases, both would run the risk of being cannibalised by the other in government.

None of this augurs well for political stability and effectiveness. The experience of minority government, since 2016, has not been good. Last week’s analysis by the European Commission of the reform efforts of EU governments found that Ireland had fully implemented just 5pc of the “country specific recommendations” on reforming the economy since exiting the bailout in 2014. That was well below most peer countries, such as the Netherlands. That country also has a highly fragmented political system but manages to run effective governments. It may be the case that Ireland becomes more like the Netherlands in time, but there is little sign of it happening in the short run.

The luxury of a do-little government and a stream of posturing private member bills can be afforded for a time, particularly a time when the economy is motoring along under its own steam. But a price is eventually paid for ineffective government.

Sins of omission have been a greater reason for governmental failures in the past in Ireland than sins of commission. Without proactive Government, more and more things will go undone. The consequences of political inertia should be well known by now.

Sunday Independent

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