Cer­tain losses

Irish Examiner - - Front Page - Ger­ard Howlin

On a con­stituency by con­stituency ba­sis, I can see a net gain for Fine Gael of two or three, but only if all goes well. It faces some cer­tain losses... As a party they haven’t been as smart at their pol­i­tics as they should have been.

A“There will be a lot of talk on health and hous­ing, but lit­tle on how the in­vest­ments needed will be funded

gen­eral elec­tion to choose 160 TDs in 39 con­stituen­cies is on. Polling day is Satur­day, Fe­bru­ary 8. In the swirl that has started, re­mem­ber that Ire­land en­joys the long­est con­ti­nu­ity un­der a writ­ten Con­sti­tu­tion of any Euro­pean coun­try. The elec­tion of a 33rd Dáil is a con­sid­er­able achieve­ment and not an in­evitable out­come.

The 1937 Con­sti­tu­tion has aged, es­pe­cially on so­cial pol­icy. But on the rights of the in­di­vid­ual, the in­de­pen­dence of the ju­di­ciary, and an acutely re­spon­sive elec­toral sys­tem, it largely de­liv­ered. Look around and, in terms of the dura­bil­ity of its in­sti­tu­tions, Ire­land has done well. They haven’t al­ways been as ef­fec­tive on pol­icy as they have been flex­i­ble po­lit­i­cally, how­ever.

Aside from an oc­ca­sional land­slide, it is a hand­ful of votes in a hand­ful of con­stituen­cies that counts.

Po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity in the form of the ‘two-and-a-half-party sys­tem’ from Fianna Fáil’s en­try to Dáil in 1927 to the 2011 gen­eral elec­tion was re­mark­able. But more re­mark­able still was the dura­bil­ity of our po­lit­i­cal struc­tures amid the pub­lic anger of eco­nomic col­lapse.

In 2011, 45% of all TDs were elected for the first time. In 2016, 38% were elected for the first time. When the Dáil was dis­solved yes­ter­day, only 17% of TDs were there nine years ago. Of those, not all en­joyed con­ti­nu­ity of ser­vice. As a sys­tem, it was bent al­most to the ground by a pub­lic anger, but it didn’t break.

Part of the rea­son for its dura­bil­ity is also its weak­ness. The mul­ti­seat con­stituency en­sures deep per­sonal con­nec­tions lo­cally with na­tional politi­cians. If politi­cians gen­er­ally are out of favour, the lo­cal TD who is per­son­ally known and as­sid­u­ously cul­ti­vates the com­mu­nity is dif­fer­ent. They are not so bad, you see.

In a Euro­pean con­text, that need for feral com­pe­ti­tion among par­lia­men­tar­i­ans in the same con­stituency, let alone in the same party in the same con­stituency, is un­known. It is the deeply rooted com­mu­nity pres­ence of politi­cians, and the abil­ity of the elec­torate to nu­ance their choices through the multi-seat sys­tem that has given Ir­ish pol­i­tics the safety val­ues re­quired. The down­side is that there is lit­tle to pro­tect na­tional pol­icy from purely lo­cal or highly sec­tional in­ter­ests.

Our in­abil­ity to widen the tax base be­yond an anaemic and now stalled lo­cal prop­erty tax is one proof of that. His­tor­i­cally, the fail­ure to de­liver wa­ter charges is an­other.

There will be a lot of talk on health and hous­ing in this elec­tion, but lit­tle on how the in­vest­ments needed will be funded. Things are OK so long as the sun keeps shin­ing.

Eco­nom­i­cally, we never ap­plied the lessons of the crash. Sen­si­ble de­ci­sions in the last bud­get, and po­lit­i­cally reach­ing out again for the virtue of pru­dence, are un­der­mined by bud­gets in 2016, 2017, and 2018 that were pro­gres­sively more fool­ish — and cor­rectly de­cried as such.

On the econ­omy, it is an open ques­tion for this elec­tion whether Fine Gael is still more trusted and cred­i­ble than Fianna Fáil.

The Fine Gael ar­gu­ment is that Fianna Fáil can’t be trusted be­cause it is the party of the crash. An­other is that the only govern­ment Micheál Martin can lead is one based on his cen­tre-left party be­ing in hock to oth­ers fur­ther left than him­self.

If Fine Gael has old style, Fianna Fáil un­der­mined its own cre­den­tials, fail­ing in op­po­si­tion to man­age its spend­ing com­mit­ments. Just off cen­tre stage, spend­ing demands abound, spon­sored by the oth­ers on which the larger par­ties must de­pend.

Out­ra­geously, Labour wants to post­pone mov­ing back en­ti­tle­ment to the pen­sion to 67. Hav­ing been cru­ci­fied in govern­ment by the pol­i­tics of the wa­ter charges, now it im­i­tates the op­por­tunism of that which did it in.

A lot of the de­tail will be lost. But what will loom ever larger be­tween now and elec­tion day is the ques­tion of who is trusted or be­lieved more.

For the first time since 2007, there is a real con­test for the of­fice of taoiseach and the op­por­tu­nity to form a govern­ment. To that ex­tent, this is a pres­i­den­tial-style elec­tion be­tween the Taoiseach and the leader of the op­po­si­tion.

In 2007, Fianna Fáil and Fine

Gael com­bined to se­cure 68.9% of the vote. This time, that tally will be south of 60%. In a Dáil of 160 TDs, their com­bined seats will be be­tween 100 and 110.

The prize of win­ning this elec­tion is un­like any other pre­sented, cer­tainly since 1948, and I wasn’t around then.

The use of the word ‘win’ needs to be qual­i­fied in elec­tion cov­er­age. The larger party that comes out ahead with more than 50, but prob­a­bly fewer than 55 seats, wins first go at form­ing a govern­ment.

But get­ting from the early 50s in Dáil seats to 80, through a se­ries of deals with Greens, Labour, So­cial Democrats, and myr­iad In­de­pen­dents is very chal­leng­ing. Each has its own in­ter­nal dy­namic.

If Labour is be­hind the Greens and it has only third pick of the poli­cies and po­si­tions avail­able, there will be an is­sue within Labour about govern­ment at all.

The So­cial Demo­crat TDs have es­chewed govern­ment or walked out of it. Few In­de­pen­dent TDs see their role in life as making up the num­bers so an­other In­de­pen­dent col­league can en­joy min­is­te­rial of­fice. No politi­cian lacks ego or self-be­lief.

The only govern­ment pos­si­ble of a base of 50-odd seats is a house of cards.

Mo­men­tum driven by the cam­paign could al­ter all of this. For now, I see a closely fought war of at­tri­tion be­tween Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over a rel­a­tively small num­ber of seats. That puts the win­ner in the driv­ing seat of a ve­hi­cle with levers that are at­tached to very lit­tle.

Fine Gael’s prob­lem is that peak Leo has passed. It wasn’t pos­si­ble to cash the cheque at the time. Now it’s back to nor­mal for his party. Its base is se­cure but that is not enough. It must make seats gains to stay in of­fice.

On a con­stituency-by-con­stituency ba­sis, I can see a net gain for Fine Gael of two or three, but only if all goes well. It faces some cer­tain losses and the ef­fect of the Greens on its fi­nal tally is un­known.

The prob­lem is that the Fine Gael base is never enough.

As a party, it hasn’t been as smart at its pol­i­tics as it should have been. In­su­lar­ity has a cost. But if Fianna Fáil has an edge, and I think it has a small one, it is well within reach of a good cam­paign by Fine Gael or be­ing done-in by its own mis­takes.

It is not sim­ply that this elec­tion is too close to call. It is that its ul­ti­mate re­sult is only a preface to events, to which the cam­paign it­self may not be a re­li­able guide.

We elect a Dáil on Fe­bru­ary 8. The 160 we elect — not us — choose a govern­ment.

The ‘two-and-a-half party’ sys­tem has pro­tected Ire­land’s in­sti­tu­tions from ma­jor shocks, but left them un­able to adapt to chang­ing times.

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