Bye bye Biffo*

It’s general election day in the Irish Republic. After the tumultuous – or GUBU – events that led to the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition in January the election campaign was rather anti-climactic: bereft of talking points and gaffe-free.

One thing that we can say for certain is that Enda Kenny will be appointed an Taoiseach – or Prime Minister – and lead Fine Gael to government from fourteen years of opposition. Three important questions follow.

First, will Fine Gael have enough seats to govern with the support of a few independent deputies or will the party be forced into a coalition with the Labour Party? The former scenario is very much possible. Opinion polls suggest that Fine Gael will come close, but probably not quite reach, the 83 seats required to have a majority in the Dáil Éireann (the lower house of the Irish parliament). Arguments and counter-claims between Fine Gael and Labour – historically its favoured coalition partner during the relatively few occasions when Fianna Fáil’s stranglehold on power was loosened – provided the only ‘entertainment’ and talking points during the campaign.

Secondly, will the Fianna Fáil vote collapse or, in a best-case scenario from its viewpoint, could its core vote sustain and allow a bloodied but intact party to claim the second largest number of seats? Ireland’s economic decline has been rapid and unforgiving. The ghost which has haunted and brought emotional turmoil the island over the past three centuries is back: emigration. Fianna Fáil, having presided over the heady boom and the caustic bust, will pay the price for this at the polls. But the party, under the new leadership of Michéal Martin, has both stabilised and recovered from, at one point, a rating as low as 13%: quite a fall from grace for a party that has been in power for a total of 61 years during its 85-year existence.

Finally, will Sinn Féin finally make its much-anticipated breakthrough? The party currently holds five seats. It has been suggested that the party could triple that number: some predictions go further than that. Sinn Féin found itself in very similar circumstances on the eve of the 2007 election only to find that it actually lost a seat. Five years ago the party was weighed down by its leader’s, Gerry Adams, perceived economic illiteracy as well as its very recent past as the political wing of the Provisional IRA. Things are, of course, different now: the economic catastrophe paints Gerry Adams’ pseudo-Marxist economic views in a new light while memories of the dark days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are fading. Adams has also made, to put it mildly, questionable propositions on the IMF and EU bailout.

The answers to all three questions will be clear by dinner time tomorrow (Saturday). But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think. On question one, Fine Gael will indeed choose to govern alone but will depend on the support of independent deputies. On question two, Fianna Fáil will emerge as the second largest party in terms of seats. Talk of its decline has been much exaggerated and nowhere do old habits die harder than in Ireland. On question three, Sinn Féin’s gains will be more modest than predicted: maybe taking eight or nine seats in total.

*Biffo is both a term of endearment and abuse, depending on your viewpoint, for outgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

“More than just a Janet and John guide to the Queen and stuff”

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, Britain’s most senior civil servant, delivered a presentation on the proposed Cabinet Manual on Thursday 24 February. This was part of the Constitution Unit’s Public Seminar Series and was held at the Institute for Government.

Published by the Cabinet Office, a draft version of the Manual is currently being considered by three parliamentary Select Committees while a consultation period is scheduled to end on 8 March.

Sir Gus explained that the Manual is intended to “help the public better understand how our democracy works” by making the inner workings of government more transparent. He emphasised, however, that it is not intended to be an exhaustive description of existing practices: rather, the Manual should act as a “high-level summary” of areas such as ministerial responsibility, devolution and hung parliaments.

Sir Gus also took time to address some criticisms that have been directed at the Cabinet Manual as well as some myths that surround it. It is not, he stated, a written constitution with a defined legal status, nor is it intended to direct the administration of government. It is a statement of how the executive functions and one that is written in an understandable manner: no Erskine May or Magna Carta but a “work of reference that guides those of us who work in or with government, and opens up how government works so that it can be better understood by people across the country.”

In February 2010 the skeleton structure of the Manual as well as a draft chapter on elections and government formation were published. This draft was to take practical effect after the May 2010 general election. Sir Gus argued that the Manual served as a “useful, modest piece of guidance” during the political negotiations which immediately followed.

Furthermore he rejected criticisms that publication of the draft chapter had unduly influenced those negotiations: whether that was by dictating the speed at which negotiations between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats should take place or for how long Prime Minister Gordon Brown should stay in office.

Sir Gus contended that the most fundamental conclusion to be drawn from those “five days in May” is that the civil service was fully able to meet the challenge presented by this “unusual situation.”
Sir Gus concluded his presentation by reiterating that the Cabinet Manual should not be understood as a seminal constitutional document but, nevertheless, should act as more than, in the words of Lord Powell, “a bit of a Janet and John guide to the Queen and so on.”

During the question and answer session that followed, Sir Gus was asked to comment on the Manual’s proposed longevity, the role of the sovereign and the relationship between the executive and judiciary. Particularly salient in the mind of the Cabinet Secretary and those involved in the Manual was the tricky problem of revision: what should be acknowledged as now-existing practice and when should this acknowledgement take place?  This issue may prove particularly challenging to  Sir Gus and his successors.

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