COMMENT: Programme For Government Deal Has Taken Too Long

As a deal is finally struck on a Programme for Government, Gavin has been reflecting on why it’s taken over four months to reach this stage, and why it’s in the interests of political parties to not allow this happen again in the future.

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Winston Churchill has been in the news quite a bit over recent days, or at least one of his statues has.  But instead of looking at the wartime leader, and the rather odd focus on him, I invoke his name here because one of his more famous quotes, which seems quite apt for the current period in Irish politics.

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“Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.”

The people of Ireland have waited for over four months for a deal on our next government because of democracy, or to be exact, our democracy.  Proportional Representation will always have its fans, not least because of its dramatic election counts, including its own distinctive vocabulary (how someone is ‘battling’ for their seat while watching on as their votes are being counted, helpless to influence matters, will always baffle me).  But in modern-day Ireland, it’s also giving rise to a lack of clarity which lasts for much longer than even the most grueling ‘marathon’ count.

It took 70 days for the last government to be formed.  It took 128 days this time around.  Many find that infuriating, but their frustration is made worse, I feel, when people feel like the results of the process don’t represent what was said in the first place.

This week, we were inundated by people getting in touch with Morning Focus to outline their frustrations at this new government, and in many cases it wasn’t at the deal, but rather the government itself. Fianna Fáil said they wouldn’t get into bed with Fine Gael. Fine Gael said likewise. But now, here they are coupling up and putting a century of civil war politics behind them. While for some, the idea of either party doing a deal with the Greens cannot be countenanced. But, because of the results of the election, that’s the price of power.

Some compromises are still a step too far for the traditional Big Two – they still seem to feel that it’s still not time for Sinn Féin to be in government – but I’m struck that our model of democracy seems to now be conspiring against them. To win an election, parties need a strong platform, strong policies, and strong values, but then they need to water down all of these to actually get into power.

The influence of the traditional Big Two has never been more weak. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael shared 132 seats in 1989, compared with 73 now. Such is the voters’ right, and many will say that they’ve got what they deserve. But if it continues to deliver muddled election results, and month-after-month of government deliberations, then surely that’s not helpful for our democracy or for our country. This is a time of political inertia, masked by COVID-19. The virus is being addressed, but many more matters are not. Where is the action on Shannon Airport? Where is the decision on the future of Moneypoint? Where is the action on funding our colleges or universities, or giving parents clarity on the re-opening of schools, or on important infrastructural projects? They’re all matters for the ‘next government.’

And after the next election, it’ll be up to the government after that.

I like that we have a democracy that leads to a wide range of views being representative. I think, instinctively, that most of us do. But this nonsense of it taking months and months to sort out a deal on a new government cannot be tolerated. Our politicians owe us better.

When he spoke with me on Thursday, Micheál Martin said there would be a political crisis if the current Programme for Government is not passed. Leo Varadkar has said the same, as did Senator Martin Conway on Friday. But would the crisis be as acute if it didn’t take four months to get to this point? The snail’s pace of progress has now resulted in political brinkmanship. There is a potential crisis, but it’s one made by the political parties themselves who have largely delayed and dithered, now after two successive elections.

This isn’t a criticism of any one political party – it should be seen as a black mark on our politics as a whole.  I hope this gets addressed by the next Dáil, with stringent and binding timelines for action applied on every party into the future, but I won’t hold my breath.

However, those same parties should act in their own interests. There is a disgruntled public out there, who won’t forget this the next time we go to the polls. It’s in the parties’ own interests to avoid another repeat of this malaise, and if they don’t act, it is only them who will suffer.

“We need the right deal,” they’ll insist.

But WE need action.