Politics about getting and wielding power

Posted By: March 07, 2016

Deaglan de Breadun. Irish News (Belfast). Monday,March 7, 2016

Deaglán de Bréadún assesses the fallout from the Dáil election and the likely next moves as the parties examine their options

THE late Conor Cruise O’Brien liked quoting the words of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984, that “politics is about the getting and wielding of power”. It is hard to think of a better definition and it applies in spades to the post-election situation in Dáil Éireann.

Since the old warhorses of southern politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, each failed to secure a majority in their own right, the logical course of action is for the pair of them to combine in a “grand coalition”.

Logic isn’t always the best guide to politics, of course. North of the border it would have made logical sense for Unionists and Nationalists to come together in a durable power-sharing arrangement long before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and even prior to the Sunningdale pact of 1973. But people’s emotions as well as long-established political traditions and tribalism often get in the way of common sense.

The good news is that logic and common sense may yet prevail in The South. We don’t need a period of uncertainty in these difficult economic times and even a government beset by internal divisions and distrust is better than no government at all.

Despite conducting an election campaign that was lacking in empathy and emotional intelligence, Fine Gael remains the largest party with 50 seats and they are scrambling to hold onto power.

Fianna Fáil aren’t far behind with 44 TDs, more than double the number they had at the outset. After a miserable spell in opposition, the wind was finally at their back and even members who had doubts about Micheál Martin would now admit that he is head-and-shoulders above other leaders when it comes to understanding and explaining policy issues.

One hesitates even to mention Labour because it feels like intruding on private grief. They won 37 Dáil seats out of a total 166 in the previous general election, having entertained thoughts that they might even be the largest party. The leader at the time was Eamon Gilmore and the slogan “Gilmore for taoiseach” was floated for a while.

Labour did poorly in the 2014 local and European elections and Gilmore was replaced in short order by Joan Burton. It was supposed to be like the song Things Can Only Get Better but the old Roy Orbison number It’s Over would have been more appropriate. It’s no way for James Connolly’s party to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

With seven TDs in the new Dáil, the Labour team is less than a third the size of Sinn Féin’s and only one bigger than the hard-left group, Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit.

Sinn Féin has gone from 14 up to 23 Dáil deputies but there are a few thorns on the rose. Gerry Adams topped the poll in Louth and his running-mate Imelda Munster was elected as a TD for the first time.

Adams is a popular figure on the election canvass but suffers badly from poor preparation for radio and TV interviews. A modicum of proper homework in advance of media interrogations would put him in a better position to answer questions about basic issues of party policy and their implications.

The pair may have little else in common but Adams and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny are very much prone to errors when the media spotlight is shining on them. Maybe they should share the cost of interview-training between them?

So what happens next in southern politics? At time of writing there are reports of contacts between the two main parties and various Independents and fringe groupings. But it’s like the minor match before the whistle blows at the start of the senior game.

The new Dáil assembles for the first time on Thursday but at this stage it looks like a fairly meaningless ritual. Last time out in 2011, the Fine Gael leader was voted-in as taoiseach by a majority of more than four-to-one. The challenge this time for Kenny is to secure more votes than Martin, although neither of them is expected to have a majority in the House.

Whoever gets the most votes on the day will no doubt declare a moral entitlement to the job when a government is finally put into office. Kenny is due to head off to Washington in his role as caretaker taoiseach, for the events surrounding St Patrick’s Day. Then Easter will be taken up with the 1916 commemoration, so we can expect little action in the Dáil until the start of April.

The issues are boiling-down to a choice between a minority administration, probably headed by Kenny, with Fianna Fáil lending support on a case-by-case basis, or else a loveless marriage between the two Civil War parties. As Mrs Gandhi said, it’s all about power.