John Minihan: Politicians must rise to challenge, to embrace real change

JOHN MINIHAN, a former senator and general election candidate from Cork, picks the bones from the election result and suggests a way forward in the Dáil
John Minihan: Politicians must rise to challenge, to embrace real change
SHAKE ON IT: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will eventually merge, believes John Minihan.

IN my last article for The Echo, I concluded thus: “We now find ourselves on the cusp of political change the likes of which this country has never seen... if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael don’t embrace change then the electorate will impose change on them’.

That is now the challenge that has been set for us all, both political parties and the electorate, we all have to change.

One test of a campaign slogan is how efficiently it helps voters explain their preference to others and to themselves. A good example of this surely is ‘Get Brexit done’. As a slogan it was snappy and populist, as a policy, it was empty and cynical, but it resonated with the British public who voted for it out of a level of frustration with politicians seemingly living in a bubble in faraway Westminster.

Equally, the slogan of a vote for change in our election campaign was politically clever but never a coherent policy and is difficult to interpret or define. In reality, it probably is a form of a protest vote against ‘establishment’ parties. Ireland has always displayed a resilient conservatism rather than a typical left-right divide that is the norm in many neighbouring democracies.

Fundamental political change requires a change in the basic character of our political system of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael fighting each other for the middle ground.

Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar, speaks to the media after the Parliamentary party  meeting in Leinster House, to discuss the results of the recent General Election. He stated FG were preparing to go into Opposition. Photo: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar, speaks to the media after the Parliamentary party  meeting in Leinster House, to discuss the results of the recent General Election. He stated FG were preparing to go into Opposition. Photo: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

We are witnessing the ending of a classic duopoly, when combinations of either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael / Labour / Green / PD governments held the reins of power. The policy differences between Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are hard to determine and ideologically their differences are purely cosmetic. Both are avid supporters of the EU, capitalism, a model of economic development based on foreign direct investment, and ultimately a united Ireland by consent only. The extent to which they differ ideologically is as much psychological, social and regional as it is political in the real sense.

Sinn Féin, on the other hand, is a left wing, nationalist party, long ostracised from Irish politics over its ties to sectarian violence and its ambivalence on the implementation of the rule of law in the Republic.

Their vote surged through their clinical and targeted grassroots activism around issues that captured voters’ attention: housing, homelessness, social injustice, childcare and health issues. Their demands for change got traction among a generation that never witnessed or were educated about their violent roots.

Having said that, it is probably true that Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them. The first duty, or over-riding responsibility of Government is fairness and the welfare of its people and when that contract is broken then retribution is swift.

We are now facing an unprecedented political dilemma. So let’s stop the paralysis of analysis and endless shadow boxing, our options for the formation of a workable administration are limited. There are four quadrants on the political landscape, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and a grouping of Greens, small parties and Independents. No group on its own or any combination of two can form a workable administration.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being elected at the RDS Count centre on February 9, 2020 in Dublin. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being elected at the RDS Count centre on February 9, 2020 in Dublin. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.

Sinn Féin’s surge to be the biggest political force in Ireland has changed the shape of the Dáil. Apart from the 37 seats the party won, it is felt by failing to run sufficient candidates they left at least five on the table, and the right to the Taoiseach’s Office in the process.

Its vote share and huge surpluses across the country had a big bearing on other seats too. Micheál Martin went to bed on Saturday night, sleeping soundly on the back of favourable exit polls, thinking he would break 50 seats. only to see them gobbled up by PR on Sunday. The value of using your ballot paper in full...

Analysis of the result seems to indicate Sinn Féin representing the hard left and virulent republicanism are in a minority position. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens and like-minded independents with about 83/86 seats, seems to represent the majority centrist position as expressed in the ballot box. An administration such as that with a workable majority and clearly defined objectives could set about realistically remedying many of the problems outlined recently on the doorsteps.

A coherent left wing opposition will keep the government focused on solutions, not slogans, and the winner be will be our democracy. It’s a Hobson’s choice for many, Sinn Fein in government or leading the opposition — the electorate have clearly stated it’s either/ or.

Simon Coveney TD and Micheal Martin TD, in conversation at the Cork South Central and Cork North Central, Count Centre at Nemo Rangers Hurling and Football Club, Trabeg Sports Centre, South Douglas Road, Cork.Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Simon Coveney TD and Micheal Martin TD, in conversation at the Cork South Central and Cork North Central, Count Centre at Nemo Rangers Hurling and Football Club, Trabeg Sports Centre, South Douglas Road, Cork.Picture: Jim Coughlan.

So how did we in Cork fair? Fine Gael dropped a seat. Fianna Fáil, despite riding high, failed to gain any but succeeded in unseating two of their sitting TDs. On balance, it looks like Fianna Fáil coming from the opposition benches were the real loser as a direct result of a responsible but failed Confidence and Supply agreement.

As for Sinn Fein, I still believe the majority of Irish people feel they are demonstrably unfit to be in Government, although they captured the imagination of a quarter of the electorate by cleverly capitalising on deep anger over housing crisis and have 37 TDs.

When will they understand the simple rule of numbers? 25% of the popular vote does not give them a right to govern. You need 51%.

Political gamesmanship is now in play! Fianna Fáil claiming it’s Sinn Fein’s job to elect a Taoiseach and form a Government is no more than a strategic play in the first hand of a poker game! The Dail elects the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil, as the party with the greatest number of seats, has the responsibility to try and form a Government.

Not letting SF become the main opposition is one of the reasons Fianna Fáil agreed a supply and confidence deal rather than enter a coalition in 2016. It is now accepted this did not work and led to an ineffective Government, while Fianna Fáil struggled with their chameleon-type politics caught in the morass between Government and Opposition.

The result of the current impasse and the redefining of the Irish political landscape will eventually lead to the merging of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, under a new entity in Irish politics reflective of our new Ireland. The timing and manner of this falls on the shoulders of the current incumbents.

We all acknowledge there is an atmosphere for change and I too am crying out for it, I am calling for it for the past 15 years. In 2005, after a strong Sinn Fein local election performance, I discussed with then leader of the opposition Enda Kenny that the time had come for a new entity in Irish politics for like-minded individuals and advanced a merger of the PDs and Fine Gael. I still have similar ambitions.

On Thursday, we will see nominations for Taoiseach, I imagine none will reach the magical figure on round one. We will then adjourn, having looked each other in the eyes of the Dail Chamber, to commence policy based serious negotiations with the view to government formation. I trust and hope both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will meet in the spirit of change, with a meaningful, ambitious policy platform.

Strong and decisive Government is our only hope to preserve our economic future.

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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