Away from the ball-by ball commentary on the crisis, what sort of coalition would Fine Gael and Labour make? A pre-election pact looks improbable, despite the depth of the political and financial crisis. At first blush, competition between them for the leading role could leave voters guessing until the last minute. Prospects for firm government might appear slim. Labour will bid to overhaul Fine Gael at the polls. For the first time Labour enjoys the lead of the party polls at a record 32%, while Fine Gael has a notably lacklustre leader in Enda Kenny. Will inter-party rivalry blight the chances of vital cooperation and bring the Irish political process into further disrepute?
After seven coalitions since the formation of the State, Irish voters are used to pretty arbitrary behaviour from the parties. Manifestos tend to be wish lists papering over internal differences as much as appealing to would- be partners. And who can forget Labour under Dick Spring changing horses in midstream from Fianna Fail to the Fine Gael-led Rainbow coalition in 1994?
Another basic problem has been the historic lack of serious and consistent ideological choice between the successors of the original Sinn Fein, the right wing populist Fianna Fail and the right wing with a tinge of reformist Fine Gael, with assorted squabbling left wing parties and movements bringing up the rear, sometimes merging with Labour, sometimes simply disappearing. And to cap it all, the dominance – until now – of Fianna Fail as the natural party of government, in power for over two thirds of the State’s existence – too long for reliable political health. Fianna Fail-led coalitions have been top- ups, the others, more like the real thing.
And yet despite the chequered history, fears of an unstable coalition emerging next month may be exaggerated. Enormous public pressure for the parties to stop squabbling is having a salutary effect, minute by minute. The behaviour of the opposition parties this week when they are in virtual control of the dying Dail, will tell us much. Talk of failing to pass the Budget is muted now. Better terms will have to wait for better days.
On the prospect for an united coalition, Garret FitzGerald with his unrivalled experience of the genre says no problem. You might think that as the head of two coalitions and as a leading member of the 1973-77 coalition, the most successful of the lot, he would say that wouldn’t he? But he makes a persuasive case.
It is worth addressing at this stage this issue of policy differences between Fine Gael and Labour, which I believe to be much less of a problem than many may imagine – save on a single issue: that of the emphasis to be placed on fiscal adjustments upon tax increases versus spending cuts. In their post-election negotiations these parties will need to find a compromise, largely based on the relative strengths of their parties in the next Dáil.
Other choices in relation to economic policy are largely constrained as a result of the endorsement by Europe and the IMF of the Government’s fiscal adjustment programme for the next three years. The two parties will no doubt suggest to the electorate that they will seek to renegotiate this programme, but the room for such a renegotiation will be limited by the fact that any relief sought in relation to recent tax increases or spending cuts would have to be matched by new cuts or tax increases that could prove even more unpopular.
If, as they have proposed, they seek to reverse the cut in the minimum wage, they may have difficulty in securing agreement to such a move, as the EU authorities may see this as a necessary element in reducing the wide gap between Irish and EU salary and wage levels.
We watch and pray. The bit in italics should give pause for thought. Should the formation of an emergency government to lead Ireland out of the mess be left to old style private horse trading in the interregnum? Surely the Irish people deserve better than that. At the very least, before the deal is sealed, it should be debated in public.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London