The mathematics of coalition


God, but wasn’t Prime Time desperate? It had the wholly unforeseen consequence of making me warm slightly to McDowell. Gerryspeak does my head in at the best of times, and between Grizzly’s torrent of abstract nouns and Rabbitte’s continuing impersonation of an 18th-century parliamentarian, I could well empathise with Dirty Mike’s eye-rolling.

OK, so we are now going to look at possible outcomes of the election. I’m not so daft as to try to predict the result of an STV election, but some hazy outlines can be discerned. And I’ll stick my neck out and say that the most likely new government is Fianna Fáil and Labour, although Bertie and/or Pat may have to make way for Brian and/or Brendan in the process. There are of course other possibilities, but this is the most credible one.

The consensus is that Fianna Fáil have had a shocking start to the campaign, which is true in the sense that the party hasn’t dominated the media agenda and its poll ratings have slumped. But there are a few factors militating against that. One is that the punters don’t seem as exercised about Bertiegate and stamp duty as the chattering classes. Another is that, as any fule kno, you can’t place any credence on a national poll. The constituency polls are more interesting, especially the batch of eleven done by Red C for the Examiner group and helpfully summarised in this week’s Phoenix. These indicate that, while FF support is dropping and Fine Gael support rising quite markedly in most areas, this isn’t translating into a big net shift in seats.

There are good reasons for believing this. One is that FF’s higher starting vote makes it easier for them to convert votes into seats, a situation strengthened by the new (and almost certainly unconstitutional) boundaries. The Blueshirts have the converse problem, that Big Phil has failed to crack the whip and therefore they are running far too many candidates to take advantage of the swing. It is of course true that the Red C batch doesn’t cover Dublin, where FF are likely to do very badly, but then the capital is virtually a Blueshirt-free zone and one expects FF losses there to benefit the Provos and Greens rather than the official opposition.

Now, for Electric Enda to become taoiseach a number of criteria have to be fulfilled. First, Fine Gael needs to up its seats from 32 to a minimum of something like 55. These enormous gains have to be overwhelmingly at the expense of FF, and without causing collateral damage to Labour or the Greens. Assuming Labour hold steady at about twenty and there are eight or nine Greens, a bare majority could be achieved – assuming Labour prove resistant to FF blandishments and also assuming that the Greens will come on board, which Clever Trevor to date has conspicuously not done. That’s a hell of a lot of assumptions, and for starters I would be astonished if FG break 50.

Fianna Fáil are likely to remain easily the largest party, despite significant losses. That gives them more options, although they certainly won’t be nearly close enough to the magic 83 that a government could be formed with the support of a couple of indies or the wreck of the Desocrat Hesperus. If the FF tally is in the low seventies, then FF-Green or FF-Provo become possibilities, although either of those parties would have some hard thinking to do first. If FF suffer a bloodbath in Dublin and fall significantly below 70, then Labour becomes the only realistic partner. And it is of interest that Rabbitte, previously viscerally hostile to FF, has been allowing himself sufficient wiggle room lately to make it look plausible for him to do the patriotic thing and become Tánaiste either way.

Obviously this is all just speculation at this point. But I strongly suspect that there won’t be an obvious winner next week, which will make for some fascinating horse-trading.

Feel lucky, punk?

So the early stages of the southern election campaign have been dominated by Bertie’s finances. This is probably entirely predictable, when you bear in mind that the timing of the election was very specifically designed to get the Mahon Tribunal adjourned. But apart from the usual to and fro, there are two aspects to this thing that interest me.

The first is the intervention of Tánaiste, interior minister and Desocrat gauleiter Michael McDowell. Given that his party’s supposed raison d’être is to keep Fianna Fáil honest, Dirty Mike could scarcely fail to come out with a hard-hitting response. Nor did he. What McDowell said was that, while the Desocrats would not leave the government, he, McDowell, could not vote for Bertie’s re-nomination as Taoiseach unless he, Bertie, gave a full statement on his personal finances to the Dáil. Now remember that neither of these things – the statement or the vote – could take place until the Dáil reconvenes, namely until after the election.

Bertie, who has more front than Amanda Brunker, treated this flapdoodle with the contempt it deserved. Of course, our leader said, he had no objection to giving a statement to the Dáil after the election. And why should he have? The worst that could happen is that he would be subjected to a more than usually sanctimonious speech from Rabbitte. And Bertie, with the wicked sense of humour one expects, went on to make Dirty Mike look even more ridiculous by offering to answer detailed questions on his finances, but only to the proper authority – the Mahon Tribunal, conveniently adjourned until after the election.

Our Bertie is a lot sharper than he lets on. He’s well aware that in the next Dáil the Desocrats – who could well see their parliamentary party reduced to just McDowell and Harney – won’t exactly be in a position to issue ultimata. And we’ve been in this selfsame situation before. Last year, McDowell had a perfect opportunity to bring the government down over Bertie’s brown envelopes trouble. Bertie played chicken with him and Dirty Mike, whose desire to remain Tánaiste far outweighs his concern for the probity of public life, bottled it.

The second interesting aspect of this affair is that, far from this corruption row being a disaster for Fianna Fáil, FF’s poll ratings are starting to pick up a little. This of course also happened during last year’s Bertiegate storm, and it puts me in mind of Sir Garret’s dictum that the Irish political class isn’t really all that appalling when you consider the Irish electorate. It seems the great unwashed aren’t quite as high-minded as Electric Enda, Rabbitte and the Irish Times. Plus, many of those most loudly proclaiming their outrage at FF corruption would never go near FF in the first place. Indeed, I come back to a recurring theme of this blog, that the state class of tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats exist in an antagonistic relationship to most of the Irish nation. So, when IT editrix Geraldine Kennedy berates the peasantry for being so morally derelict as to vote Fianna Fáil, it only makes the peasantry even more likely to vote Fianna Fáil.

Besides, so what if Bertie is on the take? If you believe Frank Dunlop, so is most of the political class, and FF more so only because FF is the dominant party in the state. In fact, what is more surprising is the relatively modest amounts quoted. Bertie is no Robert Mugabe – he isn’t even a Charlie Haughey. And I have a feeling that it does his image as a lovable Del Boy figure no harm at all.

The wacky races commence!


In case you were wondering, I haven’t forgotten the Free State elections. On the contrary, it’s been hard to miss their imminence. After all, the constitutional deadline for a dissolution was looming. Then there was Martin Ferris getting arrested on drink-driving charges – when prominent Shinners start getting lifted, you know there’s an election around the corner. (And they say the South doesn’t have political policing!) Most importantly for the precise timing, there was that pesky Lawlor woman and the burning imperative to get the Mahon Tribunal adjourned before matters became too hot for Bertie.

Hence Bertie’s dawn raid on Áras an Uachtaráin. Hence the spectacle of the Fourth Estate gathered in the Park at 6am, with our President in her slippers and the usually garrulous Taoiseach refusing to take questions. And with that, the starting pistol is fired.

I realise this blog’s usual fare is the North of Ireland, but this gives us an excuse to turn our beady eye southwards and splinter the Southern political class. Not only is it an opportunity to reflect on the nature of Southern politics, but the mayhem potential is too good to miss.

But your new shoes are worn at the heels

I’m extremely gratified that my old friend Splinter has chosen to broaden out the Sunrise by inviting in guest contributors. At least, he says it’s a broadening and an attempt to bring in different perspectives – I suspect there may be some slacking going on. Anyway, I’m indebted for the platform and will endeavour to live up to the high standards of this blog.

I am an occasional reader of the Socialist Democracy website, having found that, despite a rather dour style, the Grumpy Old Men of Irish Trotskyism do produce consistently useful material. One thing that caught my eye recently was this article by Andrew Johnson on the Moriarty Report into Charlie Haughey’s corruption. It’s actually not a bad article, giving a decent recap of the essential points and trying to put the whole corruption issue in some sort of historical context. This makes a welcome change from the history-by-character-assassination practiced by yahoos like Stephen Collins, who would have you believe Charlie was the root of all evil in Irish politics.

The article, however, and this is what I don’t like about the left press, is marred by quite a bit of schematic dogmatism. This seems to be the SD house style – they don’t make many concessions to the reader who isn’t immaculately versed in their politics, and there is a tendency to conclude with their entire programme. What I would particularly take issue with is Johnson’s historical account of “the rise of corruption”, which is written in a telegraphic manner that fails to take into account some of the nuances of 26-county politics. Perhaps that can be forgiven in somebody writing from the vantage point of Belfast, but for the southern reader it’s a little jarring.

For instance, Johnson makes big play of the “de-republicanising” of Fianna Fáil in response to the explosion in the North in 1969. But FF didn’t simply ditch the First Aim of its Córú and proceed in a political vacuum. Rather, the old policy, laid down in the New Departure of 1926 which established FF as the constitutional republican party, was replaced by a new policy, enunciated by Jack Lynch in 1970 and endorsed at the 1971 Ard Fheis. This new policy, which Lynch passed off in typically opportunistic fashion as the old policy retooled for new conditions, was in fact the old Cumann na nGaedheal policy from the 1920s.

Johnson is also more than a little hazy on the divisions within Fianna Fáil in those years. It is true that, in the 1960s popular imagination, Charlie was the exemplar of Homo Mohairicus, but things were more complicated and much more interesting than that. Neil Blaney was often characterised in those days as a Mohair Suit Man, but Neil may have been, along with my mentor Kevin Boland, one of the last honest men in Fianna Fáil and a good traditional republican. Conversely, if there was one man in the FF leadership who took the lead in ditching the party’s time-honoured ideology, it was the ostentatiously old-fashioned George Colley. The events surrounding the Arms Non-Crisis are usually and correctly held to be a precursor to the 1985 split (and it was no coincidence that the “retired” Jack Lynch became the Desocrats’ éminence grise), so a more in-depth analysis would not go amiss. The politics of Ireland in recent decades has been ill served by radical historiography, and may provide more fertile grounds for research than yet another paper on 1798 in Roscommon.

I have genuinely mixed feelings about Charlie. Of course he was a shocking old reprobate and I wouldn’t want to defend his crookery for a second. But there was no doubting his extraordinary ability and I’m in no doubt that the tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats (© Splinter) hated him not for his failings but for his better points, most notably his populism and his residual (in fact largely rhetorical) republicanism. This I think is why so much of the spiteful commentary on his decline and fall leaves a bad taste. Charlie probably deserved a spell behind bars, but he didn’t deserve to have his epitaph written by those who never did the nation any service at all.

Charlie as Banquo’s ghost

Have I read the Moriarty Report? No I haven’t, the bastard weighs in at 704 pages. But I have read the executive summary and skimmed some of the sections, which makes me at least as well qualified to comment as most of the pundits in the O’Reilly press.

We all knew, and had done for years, that Charlie was up to his oxters in corruption. All Moriarty could really do was give the facts and figures. Of the £9.1 million figure Moriarty gives, few people can be surprised it reached that amount – some may be surprised Charlie’s rapacity wasn’t even greater. Of course, what with the secrecy and the offshore accounts, we might never know the full extent of what he was up to.

Charlie was a deeply complex character who defied easy analysis. He was also fortunate in his enemies, many of whom hated him for the wrong reasons. Des Fennell rightly says that an awful lot of the D4 discourse on Charlie is really snobbery dressed up as moral indignation. That’s not to say, however, that moral indignation doesn’t have its place, and Charlie filling his boots throughout the hairshirt 80s is enough to provoke the most phlegmatic amongst us.

What’s more interesting is Bertie’s reaction. Consider this:

A mere few months ago Charlie gets the state funeral he had thoughtfully arranged for himself. Bertie presides, a fitting tribute to his mentor.

Today, Bertie is perfectly happy to denounce the corruption of the now safely dead Boss. In the meantime, Bertie has himself had a bit of trouble in the brown envelopes department.

What’s wrong with this picture?

We have Fianna Fáil distancing themselves from the man who dominated their party for the best part of thirty years. We have Electric Enda trying to make capital, although Moriarty’s second report – into Michael Lowry – is likely to make uncomfortable reading for the Blueshirts. We have Rabbitte clinging to Fine Gael like grim death. And we have the Socialist Workers Party jumping up and down, waving their little placards calling on the gardaí to arrest elected representatives. Dear God.

Kings of the wild frontier

The Irish electoral system, with the single transferable vote in multi-seat constituencies, is not only fiendishly complicated but also, by allowing TDs to be elected by tiny margins, reinforces parish pump politics and intra-party rivalries. I think it was Churchill who came up with the old crack about the opposition being in front of you, but the enemy on your own benches. Any observer of the Irish scene can tell you that Churchill didn’t know the half of it.

We are currently in a pre-election period, where candidate selection and jostling for position are the order of the day. This is an opportunity to look at the game within the game – often more interesting than the game itself. And it’s no surprise that the most fun is to be had watching Fianna Fáil, not only the biggest party in the state but also possessing a capacity for fratricidal feuds that wouldn’t disgrace The Sopranos. FF HQ is, as usual at this point, greatly exercised by constituency organisations that aren’t on message for the centralised and professional campaign Bertie Ahern wants to run. The most intransigent of these constituencies are on the West Coast, Ireland’s equivalent of the tribal areas in Pakistan’s North West Frontier, where well-entrenched local warlords scoff at the emissaries from Dublin trying to exercise some discipline over them.

Wildest of these fiefdoms is Donegal North East, where Niall Blaney’s Provisional Fianna Fáil wound up its 36 years of independent existence this summer in favour of an Historic Merger with the parent party. This left FF with three seats out of three in the constituency, Blaney joining colourful former minister Dr Jim McDaid and HQ favourite Cecilia Keaveney. At the time, Bertie made a big deal of this, and Dublin-based commentators took the Blaney move to be another of Bertie’s famously Machiavellian strokes.

Now bear in mind that the DNE constituency consists of three distinct areas, each of which traditionally provides a TD: Letterkenny town (McDaid), the Inishowen peninsula (Keaveney) and Milford (Blaney). In Donegal, local ties can be just as powerful as party allegiances. So welcoming the Blaneyites back into the fold would seem, on the face of it, to have covered all the bases. But, as Bertie should know, sometimes you can be too clever for your own good.

This is where it starts to get interesting. Although Blaney still has a powerful organisation, it is in long-term decline and he figured the best way to ensure his re-election was to be an official Fianna Fáil candidate. Apparently he was given to understand that, as McDaid had signalled his willingness to retire, there would be a two-person FF ticket – that is, Keaveney and Blaney.

At the same time, McDaid was apparently under the impression that he would be succeeded on the FF ticket by another Letterkenny candidate. At least, that’s what Letterkenny FFers thought – they were certain they would have a candidacy, whether or not that was McDaid. The upshot was that, after the Historic Merger, McDaid announced that he was reconsidering his retirement plans. He has also stubbornly resisted all blandishments to stand down. It’s hard to see what, short of a plum European sinecure, could shift him.

Now FF are in the electorally suicidal position of having three candidates in a three-seat constituency. Party HQ would dearly love to have a two-person ticket, preferably by imposing it centrally and arranging for either McDaid or Blaney to be quietly assassinated. This would avoid the inconvenience of a selection convention, which would inevitably result in open warfare between Letterkenny members and Blaneyites. However, the one thing every FF member in rural Ireland agrees on is their hatred of centrally imposed tickets, and cancelling the convention may be more trouble than it is worth. Moreover, there would be nothing to stop the shaftee – possibly McDaid but more likely Blaney – walking out of the party and going on a solo run.

Now put this in the context of the government being generally unpopular in Donegal, and the opposition parties making a strong showing. Fine Gael’s Senator Joe McHugh is odds on to take a seat; Sinn Féin Nua’s Cllr Pádraig Mac Lochlainn is also coming up on the rails, and is in a good position to appeal to disaffected Blaneyites. The result of this is that the three big FF honchos in the constituency are in a no-holds-barred scrap for two seats at most, and possibly one – and it isn’t likely, but nor is it beyond the realms of possibility that an independent candidacy from McDaid could leave the dominant party in the state with no seats at all in a traditional stronghold.

It isn’t at all clear at this stage how this situation will pan out. But Donegal will certainly be providing Bertie with some headaches in the months ahead, not to say rare entertainment for the bloody political infighting that only rural Ireland can provide. When you hear the banjo music, run like hell.

Newer entries »