Saturday, 4 March 2017

Despite their flaws, we would be better off with Fianna Fail in government right now

Recent political events have shown the present government to be perhaps the weakest since the foundation of the state. Furthermore Enda Kenny is now effectively a lame duck taoiseach. The only bit of glory for him will be if he manages to eclipse John A Costello's record as being Fine Gael's longest serving taoiseach. With the battle for Mr Kenny's successor soon to begin, in the background an awful lot else is going on.

In the general election of 2011 Fianna Fail took an enormous walloping from the voters. The party, founded by Eamonn deValera, has been in office for longer than any other in Irish politics. With their depleted numbers the party's leader, Micheal Martin, went about recasting 'The Soldiers Of Destiny' so as to try and wash off the stains left from Brian Cowen's disastrous period as taoiseach. However the people haven't forgiven Fianna Fail - yet.

In last year's general election Fianna Fail emerged as the second largest party but were unable to form a government. They refused to join with Fine Gael - their arch enemies - in a grand coalition. Therefore the only realistic option was for Fine Gael (the largest party) to try and form some sort of administration. This was eventually done with the support of an array of Independent deputies backed up by a Confidence and Supply agreement with Fianna Fail. This has given us a flimsy government passing little in the way of solid legislation and being totally relient on the main opposition party for its very survival.

Mr Kenny's government is lurching from crisis to crisis. There is no reason to believe the situation will be any different once his successor is chosen. The problems won't magically disappear. But this government could be immeasurably stronger if Fianna Fail were to put aside their pride and arrogance in order to participate fully in a grand coalition with Fine Gael. Taking this bold step would be putting the country first but it is unlikely to happen unless a truly major national crisis developed. Surely we are not far from that point now?

If the two civil war parties came together - for the betterment of the country - instead of having one of the weakest governments in history we would have maybe one of the strongest. But for narrow political reasons the Fianna Fail party do not want to entertain such an idea. To the party's rank and file: TD's, Senators, Councillors and wider membership throughout the country, anything less than total power is an anathema. They have absolutely no intention of entering into government with 'Blue Shirts'. No doubt this sort of stuff is regularly stated at Fianna Fail meetings up and down the country. But will Mr Martin be doing us, the people, any favours by keeping his party out of government at a time like the present? I think not.

Fianna Fail have had their ups and downs over the years: the early dominance of deValera gave way to the economic brilliance of the Lemass years. In the 1970's and 1980's the party went through leadership troubles with the accession of Charles Haughey. Mr Haughey was of course a ruthless operator who polarised opinion (both within Fianna Fail and the wider population). However, by the 1990's Ireland was enjoying unprecedented economic growth. The 'Celtic Tiger' economy was the envy of the world.

One of the architects of this stunning economic recovery was Ray MacSharry, former Fianna Fail minister for finance. Another former government minister, Conor Lenihan, writing in his 2015 book, 'Haughey: Prince of Power' describes Mr MacSharry as: " ...the best taoiseach that the country never had". Sadly many of the gains made from that period would be lost under Mr Cowen's tenure as taoiseach culminating in Fianna Fail's decimation at the 2011 election, as mentioned earlier. Fianna Fail have been at the centre of most political events in this country's history. I have no reason to doubt that they'll continue to form an important role well into the future, despite what was said by many after 2011.

Given the present situation it is difficult to understand why Fianna Fail obstinately and stubbornly refuse to enter government. Surely the country would benefit from the collective experience of Mr Martin's front bench being in government instead of crowing from the opposition. Much more can be done in office than out of office. Last year, at his party's annual Wolfe Tone commemoration, the Fianna Fail leader gave a typically well crafted speech. In it he warned that the current government was "drifting" and not performing adequately. "The people voted for change not just in policies but also in the way our country is governed. We continue to work to deliver this", Mr Martin told his followers. 

Also last year, Stephen Donnelly, then an Independent TD, gave a speech to the MacGill Summer School. In his address he was sharply critical of the party political system in Ireland. He spoke of the need for Irish politics to modernise. Despite being short on detail, Mr Donnelly's speech contained some good points on the direction our political system should be going in. In particular he mentioned the outrageous expulsion of Fine Gael TD's who voted against the government's Abortion bill in the last Dail. This is another example of political arrogance (not practised by Fianna Fail on this occasion). Mr Donnelly didn't refer much to Fianna Fail in his speech but, interestingly, he did have this to say: "If an existing party, or a new one, demonstrates that it is doing things differently, it might be well rewarded on election day". 

More than six months on from that day in Donegal, he is now that party's speaker on 'Brexit', having recently joined Fianna Fail. The former Independent deputy - and one time Social Democrat founder - clearly feels that Fianna Fail are finally moving out of the shadows of the past. Similar to Mr Lemass' progress in the 1960's and Mr MacSharry's in the 1990's, if Fianna Fail can get their act together, after the next general election (whenever it occurs), we might begin to see a much stronger body of politicians sitting in Leinster House. Until then we will have to put up with weak governance and that serves no one well.