October 29, 2020
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Time to bury some myths about government

Before, during and since the talks on government formation a number of myths about the last general election have been regularly repeated.

The first of these is that Sinn Féin won the election, or, as several of the party’s supporters told Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme, Sinn Féin “got the majority” of the votes.

In fact Sinn Féin got 24.5% of the first preference votes, which is a long way off a majority.

Fianna Fáil got 22.2% of the votes and those parties each won 37 seats. Fine Gael got 20.9% of the votes and won 35 seats.
The second myth is that there is something fundamentally undemocratic about excluding Sinn Féin from government.

It is neither undemocratic nor unusual. After every election some parties are excluded from government Usually the party with the second biggest vote gets left out. Occasionally it has been the party with the biggest vote, if it can’t muster sufficient support in the Dáil.

That’s the way we do it and the way most democracies in Europe do it.

Northern Ireland is different. Governments there are put together under the d’Hondt system which gives parties ministerial representation in proportion to the number of seats they win.

It is not, I think, a good system and it only works at Stormont – when it works at all – because the Executive has very limited powers. In any case, it is not the system we use in the Republic. Under our system there is absolutely no reason why two parties that secured more than 43% of the vote should not go into government with a third party, the Greens, that won more than 7% of the vote.

True, those who voted FF and FG did not necessarily expect the two old rivals to enter into a coalition. But the parties have a lot in common and worked closely together throughout the lifetime of the last government, so the deal is not a great surprise. It would have been more surprising, and more of a policy shift, if either party had gone into coalition with Sinn Féin.

In the immediate wake of the election, Sinn Féin tried to put together a government involving the Greens, small parties of the Left, and Left-minded independents. Had they succeeded, they would happily (and properly) have excluded Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael from government, despite their combined 43% vote, and given cabinet places to parties that won less than 5% of the first preferences.

And here we come to the third myth, being peddled, in particular, by representatives of People Before Profit, that this Government of the Left is still achievable. If that is true, all they need do is go back to the Dáil, propose Mary Lou McDonald for Taoiseach and vote her into power.

To achieve this, the People Before Profit and Solidarity grouping, which has trouble holding itself together, would need to unite the forces of Sinn Féin, the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and almost every independent in the Dáil, including some the Left wouldn’t touch with a barge pole and who are equally happy to keep a social distance from the Left, a socialist distance we might call it. So, please let us hear no more of this nonsense.

There are three realistic possibilities facing the country. One is the proposed three-party coalition. Another is a government of FF, FG and some independents. The third is a general election, preceded perhaps by a short-term minority government, formed simply to pass some vital legislation and keep the country ticking over until medical advice says it is safe to go out and vote.

Eamon Ryan has backed the three-party option because he believes the country needs a stable government and he would rather be part of it, and achieve some of the Green agenda, than outside achieving nothing.

I am not sure that the required 66% of Green Party members agree with him, particularly since the Green electorate includes Northern Ireland members who have no skin in the game.

The Greens are an unusual political party, as indicated by the fact that Mr Ryan is facing a leadership challenge from Catherine Martin, the woman who led the government formation talks on his behalf and who says she supports the deal – as well she might, since she negotiated it.

Ms Martin’s challenge has reduced the chances of getting the deal over the line. I hope I am wrong, but I fear we may be heading for the polls next autumn.

 

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