Things, it seems, don’t go better with a coalition

Posted By: April 11, 2016

Deaglan de Breadun column. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, April 11, 2016

THE battle between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is comparable to the rivalry between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and has been going on almost as long.

At times people have been asked to wear a blindfold before sampling the two soft drink products, to see if they can identify which is which. There is actually a certain variation in taste and detecting it is easier than spotting the fundamental difference between the two largest parties in southern politics.

No doubt leaders on each side would loudly object to such an assertion and reel off a list of policy issues where their approaches are at variance. But in basic terms, they are both centre-right parties, with Fianna Fáil veering slightly to the left at times on economic issues while Fine Gael tends to be more liberal on social questions, although even those distinctions have faded in recent years.

There used to be significant differences of social class between the two of them. Fine Gael was seen as the voice of the big landowners and the professional classes with Fianna Fáil representing the small farmer and vying with Labour for the support of the industrial worker. Those differences have eroded significantly, due to increased educational opportunity, greater urbanisation and a higher standard of living.

The Civil War of 1922-3 and the raucous street politics of the early 1930s were divisive factors but they have little relevance today. Most voters have only a vague idea as to what the Civil War was about and some of them probably think the “Blueshirts” were a football team. The parties diverged somewhat in their approach at the very start of the troubles in the north but now they are both committed to the Good Friday Agreement and, on European issues, for example, they share a broadly-similar perspective.

So a coalition government between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil makes a lot of sense and that’s what Fine Gael leader and acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny suggested last Wednesday night to his Fianna Fáil counterpart, Micheál Martin. Except that Kenny called it a “partnership” which would include a number of Independent members of Dáil Éireann as well.

Fianna Fáil’s TDs and senators met for over three-and-a-half hours on the proposal next day and, although it is believed a few of them were tempted by the offer, the overwhelming response was negative. Martin conveyed this to Kenny in a meeting which reportedly lasted all of 18 minutes.

The Fianna Fáil leader then went on to hold a press conference on the plinth at Leinster House where he questioned the acting Taoiseach’s political integrity in offering him a coalition government when Fine Gael had been talking to Independents for weeks about a minority administration led by Kenny.

It was clear that he does not have much regard for Kenny on a personal basis when he said: “That’s par for the course in terms of how the Taoiseach does his business.”

The Fianna Fáil leader did, however, make clear that his party was prepared to support a minority Fine Gael-led administration from the opposition benches or, if that did not come about, to lead such a government itself.

If such an arrangement were to last any significant period of time, it would require a rather better relationship between Kenny and Martin than the one that currently exists. Against that background, another general election in the near future must be considered a real possibility.

If that happens in the short term, Fianna Fáil will get the blame and be punished by the electorate as a consequence. The best outcome at this time for Martin & Co would be a Fine Gael-led minority administration which could be sustained until early next year, say, and then brought down over some burning issue of the day that was dominating media coverage, such as problems in the health services or domestic water charges.

Although Fine Gael emerged with the highest number of Dáil seats, the party had a bad election and Kenny’s own political future is under a cloud. In that context, a coalition with Fianna Fáil and Independents is a more attractive option than another run to the country.

Meanwhile the Fianna Fáil team in the Dáil has more than doubled in size and a general election in, say, a year’s time could see them emerge as the largest party. Apart from that, a coalition with Fine Gael at present would give Sinn Féin a free run as the largest party in opposition.

There’s also the question of party identity: if you’re a Fianna Fáil TD and your party effectively merges with Fine Gael, then why would anyone care whether they voted for you in the future or not? It would be like Coke and Pepsi agreeing to a common brand-name.

The first priority in the political jungle has to be survival.