Hung Dail means status quo can be challenged

April 1, 2016

On the matter of government formation, there are two relevant issues: first, the question of what is in the best interests of the country, and, second, the question of what is most likely to happen.

Let’s start with the country. Today we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising – a suitable day to take stock of where we are, and where we want to go as a nation.

There are many things we should be immensely proud of in Ireland. The United Nations has something called the Human Development Index – it’s their attempt to track how well societies around the world are doing relative to each other. They give every country a score based on measurements of economic output, life expectancy and education. Of the 188 countries in the index, Ireland ranks sixth.

As a small island nation on the edge of Europe, with few easily accessible natural resources, that’s an extraordinary achievement.

And yet we’re dealing with many urgent challenges.

The housing crisis rages on, with recent evictions by vulture funds just the latest sorry episode.

Our healthcare system is one of the most expensive on earth, but ranked towards the bottom in Europe, with waiting lists stretching to years for people who need care now.

One in nine children lives in daily poverty – a damning indictment of any wealthy nation. Our economy is far too exposed to international pressures, and the lack of investment in infrastructure and education means we’re not setting ourselves up for high-quality jobs in the future.

The lack of a clear Fianna Fail or Fine Gael-led government could be a good thing when it comes to tackling challenges such as housing, healthcare, child poverty and investment.

Why? Because solving them requires new ways of thinking – something at which cartels are notoriously poor – and the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael two-step is the very definition of a political cartel.

On housing, we need to move to a new model, one that involves much longer term planning, with an active co-ordination role for the State to ensure we’re building communities, and not just clumps of houses.

We’ll only get a high-quality healthcare system if we can agree at a political level what success in healthcare looks like.

Removing, or at least greatly reducing, the blight of childhood poverty requires a rights-based approach to policy-making. And developing a genuinely sustainable and stable economy means becoming just as ambitious for our own firms as we are for foreign ones that come here.

Some argue that big changes need big governments. But the last government was the biggest we’ve ever had, and it was on its watch that these challenges really emerged.

And critically, the problems in housing, healthcare and child poverty came about not because of a lack of money, but because of a lack of vision, innovative thinking and operational effectiveness. Those who define the status quo are infrequently capable of challenging it.

The make-up of the new Dail opens Ireland’s status quo up to challenge, and that can only be a good thing.

Even though the next government is still going to be led by one of the establishment parties (real change comes slowly), they will have to find common ground and listen to new ideas from outside (and within) their own ranks.

This provides an opportunity to reset the conventional thinking in big policy areas. The financial realities of the State mean that incremental progress is still required in many areas, but there’s a chance to make that progress from a new starting point, and in a better direction.

Take healthcare. If we could agree a national healthcare strategy based on public need and modern healthcare system design, then we could be improving a little every year, rather than pouring money into putting out one fire after the next.

On housing, we could be building sustainable communities, rather than just clumps of houses. We could be prioritising critical job-creation investment based on regional plans with broad political support.

Already, a cross-party committee on political reform has been formed, with early signs suggesting common ground.

This new Dail might just provide the political space to do the same in the areas that really matter. Which brings us to the second question – what’s most likely to happen?

Most of this hinges on what Fianna Fail and Fine Gael decide to do about each other. Both have spent recent weeks meeting Independents and smaller parties, partly with a view to securing votes for Taoiseach.

But largely it’s a distraction, as they’re still refusing to talk to each other. And the numbers mean no government can be formed without some form of agreement between the Civil War parties.

A government coalition should, in theory, be easy, as there’s almost no policy difference between the two. However, it would be politically difficult. First, they are culturally quite different. Second, it would leave Sinn Fein in the driving seat in opposition. Third, it would weaken the base of both parties, as some of the party faithful would refuse to do business with the old enemy.

Fine Gael certainly doesn’t want to go back to the electorate any time soon. Fianna Fail would be less worried, and are probably keen to go again next year. But forcing a general election before the summer without even trying to work with Fine Gael probably wouldn’t go down well.

And so we arrive at the most likely outcome: a Fine Gael-led minority government supported on agreed issues by Fianna Fail – a new Tallaght Strategy with the roles reversed. That way they can, between them, continue to lead both government and opposition – for now.

No Fine Gael-led government is going to champion new (and much needed) political vision. Their desired direction has already been laid out, and it’s basically more of the same. Fianna Fail’s vision isn’t that different. Many don’t relish the idea of any government led by Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. But then, the Irish people didn’t really vote for new political vision in big numbers – they voted for a bit of vision, for a bit of change. And so that’s what this Dail might be able to achieve.

Minority governments need to build consensus. And that means having to listen to other, new, ideas.

Those outside government equally have a responsibility to engage with each issue, to propose new ideas, new ways of thinking. And in that new political space, there might just be room to rethink our approach to some very big, and very important issues.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on March 27th, 2016. Hung Dail means status quo can be challenged