John Minihan: A D-day for Irish politics is looming

JOHN MINIHAN, a former senator and general election candidate from Cork, gives his view of our voting system and explains why this is a crucial time for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael
John Minihan: A D-day for Irish politics is looming

COUNTDOWN:The election campaign is nearing an end and it’s almost time to vote

IF one is to believe in polls, then the electorate will send a very clear message on Saturday — ‘more of the same will not do’. They expect more. They want efficient public services, adequate housing, care of the elderly, supportive childcare, medical services.

Having said that, I don’t envisage the polls transferring into seats, as our elaborate Proportional Representation (PR) voting system caters for our preferences and fills the final seats in multi-seat constituencies.

For us, the electorate, we have an unique opportunity not only to vote No.1 for the candidate of our choice, but by completing the full ballot paper we can influence the formation of the next Government.

In the 2016 election, the astute electorate sent a coded message to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to adopt a partnership approach in the national interest in order to give this country the leadership and Government it deserves.

Polls indicate that this experiment of new politics has simply not worked. The electorate want a Government with an effective majority, and a coherent Opposition, which is the heartbeat of a modern parliamentary democracy.

The domination of the two main parties is coming to a natural end and the inevitable consequence of this election is a realignment of politics in keeping with the international norm of a left-right divide.

Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar canvassing during the week.
Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar canvassing during the week.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have to decide whether to share Government with Sinn Fein or together form a Coalition Government and hand them over the opposition. Despite all the mutterings, I believe Sinn Fein don’t want to go into Government, they are a party of opposition and want to consolidate the left into a future Sinn Féin-led Government. They have little desire to be a responsible junior party in a Government led by either the main parties.

Those two parties are playing right into their hands by saying No to Government, allowing them to win public support and sympathy. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil need to regain control of this narrative and call their bluff! Sinn Fáin are sitting on the comfortable fence, really not challenged on their populist agenda while dining out on the principle of divide and conquer, as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael fight a phony war on how they would implement polices of little difference.

The message from the electorate in 2016 was clear and is being repeated, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael must present a strong Government and challenge the socialist policies of the left.

Elections are the lifeblood of democracy and have an enduring fascination for many. There is rather an irony in us feeling our system of PR is more representative, fairer, more sophisticated and superior to other systems. Actually, the decision to use it in Irish elections was made under British rule. Given the recent polls, I think it is timely we examine its intricacies, so we best exercise our franchise on February 8 and fully understand how it works.

In Dublin South Central in the last election, a marathon re-count of 43,000 votes and consideration of disputed votes took three days. The 11th and final count put Brid Smith, AAA-BPP, with 10.21% of first preference votes ahead by 35 votes of Catherine Ardagh, Fianna Fáil, 12.7%, which supports my earlier point that the overall percentage of first preference votes don’t necessarily turn into seats won.

One of the advantages of a transferable vote is that voters can elect people they like but also use their vote to keep out candidates or parties they don’t like. For example, imagine an election with 10 candidates in a 4-seat constituency. For a voter there may typically be: 2 people they would wish to see elected, 2 more they wouldn’t greatly object to, 3 they really don’t like at all, and 3 more they actively dislike.

After voting for the candidates in the first two groups, why stop? Because indicating preferences for the third group means, as their vote passes down, it will never get to the last group. There is also a theory that voting first for candidates who you believe will be eliminated early gives your vote a longer lifespan and a better chance of still being involved in the decisive late counts. There is a certain truth in this, provided the outcome is analysed clinically and called correctly!

It is a truism that individually voting right down through the list has only a marginal effect on that constituency. But in the bigger picture, only voting for chosen candidates can have unforeseen consequences.

As an election proceeds and the number of non-transferable votes accumulates, the number required to be elected, the effective quota, falls. Was this a factor in Dublin South Central? To use the vote most effectively, it is best to vote right down the paper, giving a preference to everybody, so as to maximise the effectiveness of one’s ballot for and against individual candidates and influence the results of the final, so important seats . So rule No.1 is loud and clear: vote wisely if not well.

“Time for change” is gaining traction here. In considering that, it is necessary to ask how? What exactly needs to be fixed? Which party has the capability, aptitude or capacity to implement the required change?

Changing for the sake of change will often not provide the hoped for impetus. Changing, seemingly at a whim, may create financial and political instability, inter-party disruption, uncertainty, and it can be detrimental to the dynamics of good governance.

For the voter, be careful what you wish for, you just might well receive it!

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin earlier this week.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin earlier this week.

I regret that Fianna Fáil seem politically unable to enter Government in coalition with Fine Gael as I believe it is only with a unity of force and strong Government that Independents can be starved of the political oxygen they require while the strength of a Fine Gael / Fianna Fáil Government is what is needed to face down the politics of a populist Sinn Fein.

A golden opportunity to reclaim our democracy will be lost and we will face an era of populist politics from which we, the moderates, will be the ultimate losers.

The key question is how we, as a society, propose to strike the right balance between the provision of services and their funding. Do we really want a far-left Government supported by a grand independent alliance striving to reach consensus on the many, varied decisions of Government? Or do we want a decisive Government capable of the necessary decisions?

The electorate are calling for change, but it is being misinterpreted by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as they strive to get the upper hand. In the process, they have created a ‘political space’, effectively leaving the campaign wide open to Sinn Fein, independents, single-issue candidates, and self-interest groups whose policies are invariably unchallenged.

Some say Fine Gael and Fianna Fail need a makeover. Whichever grasps the necessity for change and presents it in a dramatic fashion will be the dominant party of the future. The people are the ultimate arbitrators in this decision. We find ourselves on the cusp of political change. The choice is with us and I for one hope Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will respond to the call for change and give us the change that will ensure we don’t throw away all that has been achieved because of historical rather than ideological differences.

If they don’t embrace change, the electorate will impose change on them.

John Minihan has contested local and general elections for the PDs. He is an ex-member of Cork City Council and Seanad Eireann.

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