How to build coherent government when power is becoming more distributed?

Suddenly, so much to blog and so little time to do it in. This from Noel Whelan is well worth a few minutes of your time on the politics of stalemate… In particular, this minor note which hints at the larger at play here…

When someone loses power it becomes obvious – one can literally see it drain away. Kenny is still in office, as caretaker for now, but he has lost power. Fine Gael lost the campaign and they lost many seats. These losses were directly attributable to Kenny, to his strategic decisions, his choice of personnel to run the campaign and his gaffes.

Noel’s a fan of get in and do what you have to do, do it quick and hammer together something that will work (because although Ireland posted a huge growth in GDP last year, Chinese storm clouds are gathering). Two quick thoughts on that.

First, what’s on many protagonist’s minds and to borrow from Jason O’Mahoney’s Twitter memory is this…

Now, I think what Whelan correctly intuits is that that’s not likely to be the same accute problem it was in the thick of the last global crisis. Particularly if lessons from that traumatic past really are learned as well as Fianna Fail has claimed.

But it ignores the problem facing the 32nd Dail which is the enormous distribution of votes across independents and small parties very few of whom have any real coherent plans of their own. Just look at the proposed composition of the Ceann Comhairle’s new committee…

This distribution represents (best illustrated in the enormous public disaffection with Irish Water) an ongoing break between the politics of the parish (despite rumours to the contrary, alive and well) and the generative powers of those in Leinster House.

That distributed disaffection is part of the problem. As I’ve said before the social and political gap between Dublin’s strategic view of the broader challenges and the parish’s often miserable experience of them needs careful bridging.

Any arrangement that does not take time for bridge building inside Leinster House is likely doomed to failure. If power is draining from one Taoiseach it remains hard to concieve how such distributed power can arise convincingly into a new one.

As Donal O’Brolchan of the Second Republic group noted in an excellent Irish Times podcast on political reform last autumn, one of the problems is the secrecy with which policy is formed and withheld a priori from the citizen.

He also made a very telling point elsewhere in that podcast that what politicians are starved of are new options and ideas to put into practice.

That won’t change overnight. But the emphasis on adjusting the democratic form (via small changes) is probably the right first move. As Noel said himself on Prime Time last night, Ireland has suffered enough from precipitous pressure from bankers.

What comes out of this will come down to numbers, but also the means of any putative government to explain what on earth it has done with the people’s trust, not just at the next election, but during its term of office.

An envigorated Dail along with an upper house given real responsibilities, is a modest but necessary to at least create some sort of challenge to the political rent seeking that has dogged much of the politics of the recession years.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Kevin Breslin

    Maybe another election with parties offering greater pragmatism and more positive politics seems the only way to go.

  • mickfealty

    I doubt that would do anything more than p!ss off the voters, and bleed the parties dry of scarce and precious funds Kevin. It’s a puzzle and someone needs to crack it.

  • Greenflag 2

    I agree re the voters . As to being a puzzle -hardly – It has to be an FG/FF coalition for a definite time frame .It need not be full term but at least 2 to 3 years would give enough time for the dust to settle as it were. Any other combination seems unimaginable at this stage .

    The nut crackers will appear after Easter suitably tanned and reinvigorated following their international junketing to the voteless diaspora in honour of that early historical religious consultant name of Patricius not to mention being reinspired by the 1916 commemorative events to which they all owe their political existence
    The election of an FF CC is an indication of the way ahead .

  • mac tire

    Not only that, Mick, but what would actually be different? A few seats for FF here, a few for FG there. SF possibly gaining 1 or 2 and even if it were 3, it would still only be tinkering around the edges.

    I’d say the electorate would return much the same – and with it this time a message – “We’ve already told you what we want. Now you have asked us again. We won’t vote until we ‘get it right’. We’ve voted, now get it right!”

  • Skibo

    When Enda Kenny didn’t get elected to Taoiseach, why didn’t FG put the pressure on Micheal Martin by voting him in. Martin would then have been in the position that he had to go to FG to set a government and the pressure would have been on him.
    They could have said that it was obvious that the people had rejected a FG labour government and took the moral high ground, a strange place to find FG!

  • mickfealty

    I’m bookmarking this one. Personally I’m much less confident I know how it will run out. But as Harry Magee noted this morning, if one or other big party abstains, the target needed to be Taoiseach becomes much lower than normal.

    Most commentators are confused. That’s because they are simply looking at something that isn’t there any more. The serious policy fight in this election was between FF and FG. FF made sure of that.

    So, despite what some say, I doubt very much that they will join together. But I’m confident that if the Taoiseach pulls something out in the numbers (and after the CC election he’s even further out front) FF will *not* pull the plug prematurely.

    Indeed their proposed reforms would help stabilize the architecture with budget making more of parliamentary responsibility from the get go, and demotion of a vote of confidence from Def Con One to Def Con Three or Four.

    This makes sense if you recognise (and facilitate) the kind of politics the Irish public is actually voting for. We are beyond binary choice, and into complexity. People aren’t shopping in Woolworths or Wellworths any more (

    People did not vote for FF and FG. They voted for them, and yes in largish numbers. But they hedged their bets on a load of parties and individuals that either have no policy, or who’s policies were thin facades of aspiration or critique.

    The odd thing about your calculation (and it’s pretty mainstream) is that it presumes FF will (after taking the biggest single chunk out of FG) just hang up their boots and stop there. What planet are people living on?

  • Greenflag 2

    Fair enough Mick but I was’nt presuming FF would hang up their boots and stop -merely buy time (thus a 2 to 3 year deal/guarantee ) until their finances were restored for another go .
    And yes the people did’nt vote for FF /FG coalition . But numbers matter in the end in this game and no other combo has the numbers that I can see .

  • mickfealty

    Going into coalition is effectively hanging up your boots, unless of course you’re on top… Since according to the FF playbook, that cannot happen, it is most unlikely that it will happen.

    The fact that everyone else finds it convenient to believe they will doesn’t mean they’re going to play by everyone else’s playbook. They haven’t heretofore. Why change now?

  • Greenflag 2

    The ” people ” the eh plain people of Ireland have given FF a second chance to ‘rehabilitate’ themselves following the 2011 near political wipe out . It would’nt do for FF to count their future electoral chickens before they’re hatched . It’s a very different situation from the Tories /Lib Dems in the UK following 2010 or even the FG/Lab 2011 in that FG and FF are almost at a 50/50 seat split thus FF would in Orwellian speak be more equal than either the Lib Dems or Labour .

    FF may have learnt something from their 2011 experience . If they do go into government it will be for the good of the country and not the party and that will be the ‘message ‘ . It will mean a new taoiseach . FF will accept Noonan as the ‘agreed’ interim .

    Both FG and FF are aware that the voters don’t want to be inconvenienced again . Turnout was 65% .In 2011 it was 70% as an irate electorate came out to wreak havoc on FF . They’re capable of doing the same again to either FG or FF if either are seen to be putting party before country.

    Party pride cometh before party fall and with Chancellor Osborne sharpening his budget knife for more spending cuts and global economic uncertainty brewing there are enough gales blowing from outside to force /pressure our gaels inside to occupy the double bed together while maintaining a distinct line between the eh “partners”. The German CDU/ SDP grand coalition may be the template assuming it survives todays State elections .