However greatly reconciliation has been boosted by the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland remains a very different country from Britain, certainly in respect of its political system and the currency. In last week’s election, the annihilation of Fianna Fail “ the natural party of government” has been either hailed as “ a democratic revolution” or dismissed by the radically minded as “a three week holiday from reality.” For Fine Gael, this was the triumph of the non-Obama campaign, casting their lacklustre leader Enda Kenny as “ the chairman, not the Chief “ and in the certain knowledge that voters would punish those who made promises they couldn’t keep.
What is on everyone’s mind now is whether the burden of financial austerity negotiated by the outgoing government can be eased. Eurosceptics everywhere, not least in the Conservative right at Westminster, will look on in appalled glee as anonymous unelected Brussels bureaucrats damp down feverish expectations of a meaningful renegotiation of the IMF-EU bailout which funds the Irish State to the tune of 18 billion euros a year. So much for a democratic mandate, cry the critics. And of course they have a point. Masochists agree: Ireland has indeed “ surrendered sovereignty.”
Next step, take your partners for the coalition dance. No three-day pressure here. Amazingly you may think, the exhausted Fianna Fail rump remains in office; Brian Cowen the outgoing taoiseach did not even stand for re-election. There is a set interregnum to March 9 when the new Dail elects the next taoiseach. He then goes to the Park (to the President’s residence, the old viceregal lodge in Phoenix Park) to be handed his seals of office by the President. No mystical business here about the shady prerogatives of the head of State. The written Constitution prescribes the form for Madam President unlike that for Ma’am the Queen (pace the Cabinet manual.)
Noting the growing divergence between them over the balance between higher taxes and bigger cuts, outside observers may doubt the feasibility of a coalition between the centre right Fine Gael and the centre leftish Labour. But Ireland is well used to coalitions. All Fine Gael led governments have been coalitions since 1948 and the last majority Fianna Fail government was elected in 1977. After elections, consensus around the magnet of office quickly asserts itself during the interregnum and awkward pledges tend to be dumped in what is almost a convention of State. This time, bargaining may be brisk for a day or two as both parties have recorded their best ever results, but Fine Gael, outnumbering Labour by 2 to 1, will win out.
Even the scale of the present challenge and the fate of earlier coalitions will not put them off. In 63 years, none led by Fine Gael has been re-elected. And apart from Labour, all minor party partners have eventually disappeared.
Labour would hope to spared such a fate this time, but the task is daunting and the political prospects are perilously uncertain. Noone will forget that Labour jumped horses in midstream from an improbable coalition with Fianna Fail to a rainbow coalition with Fine Gael in the mid 1990s. But although charges of corruption and croneyism were in the air even then, the times were easier overall. And besides, this time, what other ship is there to jump to, after Fianna Fail’s decimation?
Last week there’s no doubt that voters compelled the parties to put the national interest unambiguously first. This pressure was accompanied by a frenzy of media-led demands for reform that featured in all manifestos. A leading voice is Fintan O’Toole a polemicist who makes a powerful case for reform in his book Enough is Enough and in his Petition for reform. O’Toole and friends balked in the end at standing for election but their onslaught has had an effect. Most parties favour a year long “People’s Convention “ to go through a long list of suggested reforms – a stronger and less expensive Dail, a tougher and more transparent code of ethics in public life including new rules for political donations , an electoral commission, wider FoI, independent tax raising powers for local government (all funding is central) and more accountable planning. Much of this to be codified in sweeping reforms to the constitution, approved by referendum. Sounds familiar?
PR-STV is identified by many as the bogey which has boosted local clietelism and weakened government. Contrast this with advocates in Britain who see it as the road to the holy grail of better representation. It all depends where you have reached on your political journey.
Irish political scientists have warned against treating electoral reform as a magic bullet. Much deeeper thought is needed. Their British counterparts are well qualified to make comparative and prescriptive contributions and alleviate Ireland’s huge anxiety about the future. Irish experts are almost as familiar with British systems as they are with their own. The British side should adopt two approaches.
One, they should have the imagination to notice a field of rich endeavour under their noses where they might make a difference. This hasn’t happened yet as far as I know. And two, they should enter the field by invitation, free from the ancient taint of Mother England and present themselves as fellow humble seekers after truth.