Ireland Needs Decisive Leadership and Strong Political Parties

Ireland Needs Decisive Leadership and Strong Political Parties

 Cllr Mary Hanafin, former Minister for Education & Science, former FF whip


One of my favourite pastimes as a child was to predict the outcome of the general election. Well, after all I remember canvassing the nuns when I was nine, our house was election HQ and the family sport was politics and not hurling like the rest of Tipperary. It was easy really – would Fianna Fáil get an overall majority (remember those days?) or would FG and Labour form a coalition? Child’s play! Then along came the Independents, the deals, the small parties, the gene pool, the alliances, the right, the left and the extreme left, the opinion polls, the choices, and with them, the absolute inability to predict the outcome of the next election.

Political pundits tend to use natural disasters to describe elections. The election of 2007 was ‘the earthquake that never happened’, 2011 was ‘truly seimic’ as FG, Labour and SF all broke previous record performances, and FF suffered a ‘negative tsunami of vote and seat loss’. I suspect the next election will be more of a twister than a tornado.

What we have to discuss in this session is whether we will have new politics or unstable governance after the next election. Unlike the political pundits, I’m not a prophet and of course it is the people who will decide.


The Campaign

The election campaign could well be an example of new politics. For one thing, there will be more women contesting, with every party fielding almost a third of women candidates. This will influence the debate to give more serious consideration of a much broader range of topics. Secondly, social media will engage voters in a new way and will challenge candidates to produce immediate responses. Unfortunately, the anonymous abusive keyboard warrior will have a platform and it is much harder to walk away from that door. Even the traditional media outlets will have to balance their coverage in different ways. Thirdly, there is at least the possibility that young people will become engaged in the campaign, having learnt in the recent referendum that being active in politics can deliver change. Finally, those who believe in the politics of protest will have no voice in an election where the politics of persuasion is what matters. That’s just the campaign but I believe one thing is absolutely sure: the Irish people will want stable governance when the votes are counted. It becomes a numbers game after the result, but forming a stable government involves more than numbers, it depends on:

– political parties with an effective whip system

– an agreed policy platform

– leaders who are respected and trusted. 


Political Parties

As of Wednesday last, there are 10 political parties represented in the Oireachtas and many others in Local Authorities. Political parties are successful the world over because contrary to popular believe they bring order to the chaos that would otherwise reign were parliaments peopled by parish pump populists. The collective nature of a political party ensures that national priorities can prevail over local or sectional interests.

Charles Stewart Parnell created a successful Irish Parliamentary Party to sit, act and vote together. The First Home Rule Bill was achieved because of this. Knowing you can depend on the votes of a majority of TDs allows for policy to be implemented.

Over the past year there has been a lot of discussion about the future role of the whip. Independents don’t have one, new parties are going to relax it, others will reduce the power but the reality is: stable Government needs the discipline of the whip system to survive and to achieve anything. That’s why the party system works.

There hasn’t been a single party government in Ireland since 1977, which is nearly 40 years ago so we can presume that the next election will produce some form of alliances. Where parties are involved, there is a presumption that, following agreement on a Programme for Government, the votes will be there. It gives certainty and stability, but a government dependent on the votes of Independents has to negotiate, bargain and even plead for every measure.

The Whip System 

I had the pleasure of being Government Chief Whip 2002-2004, the first female whip, and you have no idea the number of TD’s who told me they were looking forward to being whipped by a woman! That Government was a FF-PD Government supported by independent TDs. The previous government was dependent on a few independents. Each one had their list of demands, the issue to be resolved while they held the Government to ransom. In fairness to Jackie, Mildred, Harry and Tom, their list included a road, a bridge, a school – all local, and nothing that would impact on the debt/GDP ratio. In fact, in Jackie’s case, the most important thing was that he was given good news before John O‘Donoghue received it! 

Imagine a scenario, however, where after the next election, a government is formed with 10 or 15 or 20 independents, each with their own demands and a list that is as much national as local. One perhaps wants to get rid of Nama, another wants to abolish water charges, another to repeal the 8th. Giving in to all those demands would result in chaos. Every bill would have to be negotiated, every budget compromised. That political instability would delay economic renewal or social progress, which is exactly what happened in the early 1980s.

It would appear that even the Independents realise that there is strength in numbers as we now have two new political parties, and at least two Independent alliances. There are five elected Independents on Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Council but they have already split in two, the Independent Independents and The Shane Ross Independents. Stable government and coherent policies cannot emerge from groupings such as this. An alliance or political group needs to have a shared purpose, a shared vision and not just combining for the sake of power. That shared vision is what creates political parties that are necessary for stable governance.

Even within political parties, the whip system can be challenging. Imagine trying to get the fellow who was passed over for promotion to turn up every day to vote, or worse still, the guy recently sacked as a minister. Consider the TD with the local difficulty, or more likely the one with an issue of conscience on a social issue. There should be room in the Irish political system for allowing people to vote in accordance with their conscience on matters of life and death. It would not weaken the whip system and would be far more honest. TDs do not leave their conscience at home when they are in Dáil Éireann, nor should they be expected to. And no, life and death does not include the future of a hospital, an airport or an industry.

Parliament works because the whips have a relationship with their own members and with the opposition. Party leaders have to play to their audience, but, as we witnessed in Greece, Parliament has to get the measures through. And Parliament works best with strong political parties.

Programme for Government

Agreement on a Programme for Government is another essential part of stable government and that involves negotiation and compromise. That generally happens immediately following the election when the party manifestos are merged where there is common purpose, and again mid-term when new priorities might be set.

One of my political experiences was to renegotiate the Programme for Government with the Green Party. Miriam Lord wrote that Fianna Fáil sent two bovver boys and a boot girl to negotiate – a terrible thing to call Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern and myself! Wikileaks reported that I told the US Ambassador “if some of the Greens had their way the Programme for government would emphasize hares stags and badgers while everyone else in the country is drowning in this economy”. Of course I couldn’t confirm a wikileak but, in fact, the agreed programme included provisions that might not traditionally appear on a FF priority list such as phasing out fur farming over three years and replacing the culling of badgers with more effective and humane methods of control. I’m so glad for the badgers!

The Programme for Government is one of the most important political documents which is negotiated with trust and respect and agreed with compromise. Of course there are walk outs, table thumping and redline issues but at the end of the day an agreed Programme sets out the economic and social direction of the country for the following years. The next one must prioritise homelessness, mortgage distress, childcare and quality education. Everyone should benefit from our economic recovery and the first and second tier of our present two-tier recovery should converge.


It takes strong leadership to keep a government together, a leader who has the support of his own party, the respect of the others. In Ireland we have a tradition of rallying around a leader and, in many cases, the leader was more important than the party. Unlike England, where the division is Labour or Conservative, or the US where the choice is Democrats or Republican , Irish people follow the leader even more than the philosophy. The monster meetings of Daniel O Connell, the rallies of Parnell, the mass meetings of De Valera are proof of this fascination.

In various elections, we were invited to ‘Let Lemass lead on ‘, ‘Back Jack’, ‘Rise and Follow Charlie’, ‘make it happen’ with Albert, follow the ‘Young leader for a young Country’ ( that was before we had ‘a lot done, more to do’) and to join ‘Bertie’s Team’. Don’t forget Gilmore for Taoiseach! This focus on the leader was emphasised by the posters, the slogans, the banners and even the songs. The leaders debates on RTE, TV3, TG4, as gaeilge agus as bearla, continue this interest. And opinion polls regularly feature the popularity of the leaders and question their satisfaction ratings and, as we saw recently in the case of Micheál Martin, the leader can be far more popular than the party.

Good government results from leaders trusting each other too. Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney worked well together but Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring certainly didn’t as trust broke down. Irish people put their trust in their political leaders and they are entitled to have that trust repaid. By the end of the last Government, FF had lost the trust of the people, FG and Lab didn’t need to make promises they couldn’t keep, and the extreme left continue to sell a message of protest and opposition with no solutions. The lesson for the next election should be: don’t make false promises, don’t raise people’s hopes and don’t let them down when you get into office.

Election 2016 

In relation to the next election, one thing is certain and that is, nothing is certain. With the latest opinion poll showing 30% undecided and a Government that has lost 43% of its support since the last election, the result will be entirely unpredictable.

So picture the scene:

– Individual independents running around Leinster House like minions shouting me, me, me!

– Independent alliances morphing into political parties.

– The newest party looking for a leader as three into one won’t go

– Small parties swimming in their gene pool looking for preferment

– Larger parties saying ‘the good of the country’, thinking ‘the good of the party’

That scene has all the ingredients of political instability. Ireland needs decisive leadership, strong political parties and a clear vision of a fairer society. But once the people have spoken, they will not thank any of us if we fail to play the hand they deal us. As of now, the bigger parties have all ruled out going into government with each other. Well, someone has to run the country, someone has to reach the magic 79 seats, and when 100 women are elected I bet you they’ll do it!


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