Mark Twain once opined that, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your Government when it deserves it.”
Regular readers of this column will know that I have been openly critical of the performance of Fine Gael in Government over the past 9 years. That said, the caretaker Government, in charge of the country in the absence of a new administration since the February 8th election, have played a blinder during the Covid19 pandemic.
No one would want to be in Government at this time. There are thousands ill and unfortunately, loved ones losing their lives. On top of that, the economy is all but shut down leading to record unemployment, albeit largely temporary due to the pandemic. The measures required of Government at this time are beyond stressful, so the thought of having to implement them whilst governing in a caretaker capacity would be repugnant to most people. This is why, whilst disagreeing with their previous performance in office, everyone needs to acknowledge that Varadkar, Harris, Coveney and co. have been outstanding over this past tumultuous month.
Nevertheless, with the ability to pass legislation, including emergency legislation to tackle the pandemic, now suspended, we now need a new permanent Government. With the dissolution of the 25th Seanad, and the subsequent election of 49 of the 60 Senators to the 26th Seanad, we need a Taoiseach in order to nominate the remaining 11 so the 26th Seanad can meet. We face a few scenarios as to how to do this. The first one that has been suggested is a that the caretaker Government are voted in by Dáil Éireann to continue in office. The main problem with this is that several members of that Government are no longer members of the Oireachtas and therefore cannot continue in office. Constitutionally, this is a non-runner. Even the idea that these portfolios be filled by others undermines the though of the need for continuity at this time.
The second option is the one being championed by the Greens; that of a temporary national unity Government. This is something I myself previously supported, however, on reflection this would prove very counter productive and fraught with problem. Firstly, the formation of this administration would prove problematic. Who would lead it? With so many constituent parts, how do we decide which portfolios each party would take? And if all parties are a member of it, where would the legislative scrutiny comes from in the Oireachtas? As much as we need a Government, we also need an opposition. We saw this during the passing of emergency legislation already where opposition amendments were tabled and accepted having been missed by the Government in the first instance. Lastly, if this is a temporary arrangement prior to another election, as most who champion it suggest, it raises a huge problem. Invariably, the cabinet table will become the foreground of said election where parties will seek to fire the first shots of the campaign. This would be massively counterproductive and flies in the face of cabinet cohesion which a unity Government is supposed to provide.
The final option is the formation of a new Government proper. This is the current option being pursued by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. These are indeed strange times and seeing the two Civil War parties talking about, what would have been termed a Grand Coalition previously, is something most politicos would have termed unthinkable at the beginning of the year. Now, it’s beginning to look like the only show in town, given that an election is not possible presently due to Covid19 restrictions. There are two rather large stumbling blocks to this though, even if the parties agree a program for government. This first is that the parties don’t have the numbers on their own to command a majority in the Dáil. They would need a third party to come on board to ensure stability, even if they got the support of several Independents. New Labour leader Alan Kelly has signalled that Labour may be supportive, if not as a full member of Government, maybe as part of a Confidence and Supply arrangement. With reports of a seemingly very progressive program in the pipeline, the two historically largest parties hope that they can convince one or all of the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats to come on board. It remains to be seen what comes of the framework document that will be produced by negotiators from both parties.
This brings us to the other major potential roadblock to a deal; party membership. Whereas FG members are consulted, they can largely be circumvented by the FG Parliamentary Party given their weighting in the decision-making process. Fianna Fáil is a different story where every member, regardless of their position within the party has an equal vote. This means that 20,000 full voting members will need to be consulted to pass any program for government allowing a coalition involving FF to be formed. There is some vocal opposition to this already in FF ranks. Until such a time a vote is called though, it’s impossible to gauge the scale of opposition amongst the membership. Funnily enough, the group of members most opposed to it self-describe as Conservative members of the party who one would think are closest in policy to Fine Gael.
Jody Corcoran wrote in his Sunday Independent column, “Give us a chance, Sinn Fein and the Greens and others will cry. Well, this is their chance, and some have abandoned it; worse than that, they have run from it in the most cynically opportunistic way imaginable. So, to answer the question, what will politics be like after coronavirus? Look around you, at your family, your friends, your neighbours, at the random strangers who have come to bury their dead, and tell us the story of their father or mother dying alone with nothing but the plastic-wrapped mobile phone of a hero nurse held to his or her ear. And tell me, who will you vote for when next you come to choose a government, the people who stood up to be counted now, or those who hid in plain sight?”
Many took this as a comment to smaller parties, but it also reflects on FF and FG. The negotiators need to come up with an inventive program that speaks to both those they wish to bring on board and their own members. Party leadership cannot assume their members support nor take them for granted. It also serves as a warning to the respective party memberships that if they reject it off hand, the electorate may punish them for it. The stakes have never been so high on so many fronts.
As Barack Obama once said, “In the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.” It’s time for those with genuine patriotism to stand up in the face of unprecedented adversary and steer the country back to normality and subsequently prosperity. The time to stand up for Ireland has come for this political generation. Who will answer the call?