Will we have Better Politics, a more Successful Democracy and a Better Government?
Pat Leahy, Deputy Political Editor, The Irish Times
I will talk in a while about what I think is one of the enormously significant political reforms of the present Dáil, but while so many people – or rather many people on Twitter, which is not the same thing – dismiss what goes on here as just wind bagging, I think MacGill and Joe Mulholland can take a great deal of credit for the fact that political reform as a response to the economic crash and the political failure has become such a central and accepted part of our discourse and a demanding imperative for all political parties.
I think there were three significant political developments in the course of 2016 so far:
1. The first was the general election, held on 26 February, which saw the overwhelming rejection of a government which had overseen a strong economic recovery. For sure, that government had not overseen the return of boom time prosperity to the entire country. No government can do that. But the Fine Gael-Labour coalition presided over the return of strong economic growth and the ending of austerity. No, it did not reverse many of the cuts to public spending budgets, nor the tax increases of the austerity years but it did see the return of expansionary budgets, and the firm promise of more to come. It regained the fiscal and budgetary independence given up in the Troika period, even if these matters remain – by the democratic decision of the Irish people – matters which are subject to European agreement. Incomes had begun to grow, living standards had begun to rise, jobs were being created at a pretty spanking pace, consumer confidence had finally firmed up. The government parties lost over 50 seats.
I think that should make us revaluate how electoral politics works. The old wisdom of “It’s the economy stupid” is no longer effective as the single basis for a successful political strategy. Some of the rules of politics appear to have changed. That probably hasn’t received as much attention as it should have. The general election didn’t just return a very different parliament. It demonstrated that the political centre of gravity has moved to the left. That is not because it has returned huge numbers of left-wing TDs but because the big centre parties, realising where the public mood is at, have moved left themselves. The election result should also make those of us who work in the media, especially those of us who try to report and analyse politics, a bit more wary about the certainty of many of our assumptions, and realise that the worlds that we live in – geographically and intellectually – are not necessarily those shared by our fellow citizens and voters.
2. The second event of political significance during the year was the construction – eventually – of a new type of government. The minority administration of Fine Gael and the Independents, facilitated by Fianna Fáil through a formal agreement with Fine Gael, is unusual by Irish standards, even if minority governments are quite a common feature of similar countries such as New Zealand, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands.
It was certainly not unforeseeable, given the parliamentary arithmetic and the stated unwillingness of Fianna Fáil to enter a coalition government with Fine Gael. Quite why so many people found this so hard to understand, is puzzling. But no matter.
The significance of the new government is not so much in its novel construction, but rather in its minority status. The lack of a functioning parliamentary majority has transferred in one move a huge amount of power from the executive – the government – to parliament.
Previously the Dáil has been entirely subject to the whim of the government, which lied to it, whipped it, guillotined it and treated it with contempt – although at least then government sent the Dáil off on long holidays.
Governments of all political hues behaved in this way because they could, because they had a majority, because it was the accepted way of behaving and – ultimately – because just as the government had no respect for the Dáil, the Dáil had little respect for itself either. TDs did what they were told by the whips because they were afraid of the consequences of disobedience, but also because they put little value on the role or status of parliament.
That hasn’t all changed overnight, but what has changed dramatically is the balance of power between executive and parliament. This government regularly loses votes. It cannot be assured of getting its way on any matter. It must answer to parliament when parliament demands it. That is a very significant check on the power of government. It is also how our system of parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. I’ll return later to the prospects for how it will work.
3. The third major development of significance in the first half of this year is the British vote to leave the EU.
The effects of the British decision to leave the EU – as distinct from the actual departure, which will not happen, it seems, for at least another two and a half years – are only beginning to be felt, and beginning to be understood. Much depends on what Britain wants, and Britain doesn’t quite yet know what it wants, even if it is beginning to become a bit clearer with the appointment of the cabinet. Nor do we know yet whether Europe is even minded to talk about the possibility of agreeing to whatever it is that Britain wants. It may lead to a redefining of the relationship between North and South, and between Ireland and the United Kingdom. It seems certain to lead to a period of deep political and economic uncertainty. Economists predict it will lead to recession in the UK, which will inevitably have an effect here. It has already led to an outbreak of heebie jeebies in the markets.
So what? you say. Well, here’s what: Ireland has a national debt of in excess of €200 billion. That debt mountain has to be constantly refinanced. Countries tend not to repay their borrowings. They just keep servicing them. The cost of servicing them depends on market sentiment. So only when we don’t have to borrow on the debt markets can we afford to be insouciant about their heebies and their jeebies. I think over the longer term the economic and political effects of Brexit are likely to strengthen the necessity for fiscal discipline in Ireland. That will be enforced by the European laws that we approved in a referendum, and by the need to keep on the right side of the markets. That in turn means we are in for a period of semi-permanent, semi-tight budgets.
(I should admit at this stage that – as no doubt you remember – I also predicted this here last year and was partly vindicated when the Government produced a relatively restrained budget package amounting to a €1.5 billion giveaway. Unfortunately they wriggled out of my prediction by rather sneakily passing supplementary estimates for last year of another €1.5 billion, thus inflating the budget package in real terms to over €3 billion. They were duly punished by the electorate for defying my prediction – a lesson, I think you’ll agree, for the current administration)
In fact, that election budget notwithstanding, the previous government and – by all signs – its successor have been reasonably restrained. When you think that spending during the latter part of the boom was being increased at a rate of 12-14 per cent a year, the present government’s apparent determination to keep spending growth to the 3 per cent range looks pretty prudent.
Of course, were they to adopt a different course, and seek to respond to the many and often deserving demands for further spending – on health, on education, on social welfare, on public sector pay – they would pretty soon run into trouble with both the European Commission and the markets. So let them make a virtue of necessity. It’s hardly the worst thing a government can do.
But this semi-permanent period of semi-tight budgets will have an effect on our politics. It means that one of the central questions of Irish politics will be whether the new politics can catch up with the new fiscal reality.
One further consequence of Brexit is that the lives of many senior civil servants and especially our diplomats, are going to get a lot more difficult. In a review of Eamon Gilmore’s book for The Sunday Business Post, I once made a slightly unkind joke about the Department of Foreign Affairs. Mr Gilmore was singing the praises of the Irish diplomatic service as the greatest diplomatic service in the world, and I observed that I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to have a higher estimation of the abilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs than the Department itself, but Mr Gilmore did. Like all decent jokes, there was a grain of truth in it. But I think that practically nothing is more important for this country now than that its diplomats get results in the negotiations to come. They have a very difficult job to do, and I hope they do it well.
So how will these developments affect our politics and governance in the years ahead? Putting on my Mystic Meg robes and looking into the crystal ball, I see two questions, an inevitability and a challenge. The question is whether the Independent TDs who have entered government can satisfactorily acclimatise themselves to the demands – and to the responsibilities – of government office. The signs of late aren’t great, to be honest.
My strong sense is that most of the Independents want to stay in Government for the medium term at least. Whether they are prepared to make the compromises and political sacrifices that this requires – whether they are prepared to say No to people they have always had the luxury of saying Yes to in opposition, whether they can demonstrate the difference between campaigning and governing – I just don’t know. But the answer to that question will determine the future of the government. The second question is the impact of the departure of the Taoiseach on the stability of the government. You can all ask him yourselves later on but my expectation is that Mr Kenny is likely to have a lot more time on his hands by next summer.
I think that Fine Gael’s recent bout of the collywobbles about Fianna Fáil pulling the plug on it at the earliest opportunity is based on a misreading – again – by Fine Gael of Fianna Fáil, just as they did on the coalition question after the election. They really need to get better at reading their rivals.
But there’s no doubt that Mr Kenny’s departure will change the dynamic in government, between the Independents and Fine Gael, and between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It is, at the very least, potentially destabilising.
The inevitability I see is, over the medium term future, the co-operation of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael inside government. The obvious policy compatibility on a range of issues and the decline of traditional party loyalty – though it is far from dead – mean that the two old enemies will at some stage in the not too distant future find themselves in coalition together. We know that Fine Gael is already hot to trot; Fianna Fáil will come around to the idea.
I say this as someone who said (he adds modestly) all along that Fianna Fáil would not be joining a coalition on this occasion. I based this judgement on extensive contacts with the party’s grassroots in the wake of the election, when they stressed how different they were to Fine Gael. Never mind that the differences weren’t that obvious to those of us on the outside; the important thing was that they believed the parties were different, and furthermore they resented the idea that there was no difference between them. But what many of them said to me was not never, ever: but rather, what they said was: not now. And so, I think, it will prove to be.
And finally to the challenge
I referred earlier to the way that the minority status of the government has greatly increased the power of the Dáil. In the last few months the Dáil has been feeling its way into this new power. Fianna Fáil has been seeking to tread a careful line between facilitating the functioning of government, and exercising its own new-found power. The Independents in government are clearly only getting used to it. In fact, everyone is still getting used to it. We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which everyone is making this up as we go along.
I think it very much remains to be seen if the newly empowered Dáil uses that power properly and productively. There is – to say the least of it – a significant possibility that the power of parliament will be used, not for ensuring accountability from the government, for collaborative legislating, for true debate over the best courses of action for our country. Rather, there is every chance that the new-found power of parliament will be used for obstruction, for tactical political manoeuvring and for windy grandstanding.
I have stood here before and told you how we are responsible for the politicians we elect. About how, ultimately, politicians act rationally by doing what their electorates want them to do. About how many of us persistently choose to reward those who think only of their local, rather than the local and the national, who view it as their primary role to attain cabinet office so as to divert resources to their own electorates. About how blaming politicians alone for our political mismanagement gives us, the electorate, a free pass from the consequences of our own actions. I don’t retreat from any of that.
But I think that in the New Politics – which is really the old politics without a Dáil majority – the new Dáil, for all that it has assumed greater power and a greater centrality in political and governmental decision-making now has a greater responsibility. With responsibility, after all, comes power. That will be the true test of the so-called New Politics, and it is an enormous challenge for the Dáil.
Let’s see how they get on with budget making. Let’s see how they get on with fights over public sector pay. Let’s see how they get on with third level education funding. Do they retreat to populist sloganeering or do they try to work out policies that aren’t perfect, but are reasonably fair, and fairly affordable?
If the Dáil passes the test – and we shouldn’t in fairness judge it immediately; it will take a while to get the hang of this thing ¬– we will have better politics, a more successful democracy, and a better government.
If it fails, if the Dáil flunks this historic and vital challenge, I would really wonder about our ability to govern ourselves well.