National treasure re-elected to useless talking shop

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I haven’t been paying much attention to the Seanad election, for the very good reason that nobody really takes the Seanad terribly seriously. It is though interesting to see the Labour-Provo pact holding up, with Pearse Doherty topping the poll on the Agriculture panel. That will put some smiles on Donegal faces. It’s also instructive that FF, despite their horrible result in the 2004 locals, are not doing quite as badly as predicted.

But I’m immensely cheered that our leading Joycean scholar, gay rights campaigner and most flamboyant senator by a mile, David Norris, has strolled back in the Trinity count. In my humble opinion Seanad reform is decades overdue, and the Trinity rotten borough a standing disgrace. But as long as it keeps electing Norris, I’m in no fierce hurry to see it reformed.

Party like it’s 1948

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Following on from WorldbyStorm’s great post on the implausibility of the new coalition government in Dublin, I am drawn to reflect on implausible coalitions. Even by Irish standards, the line-up of Fianna Fáil, the Greens, the rump Desocrats, Jackie the Cap of South Kerry, disgraced Fianna Fáiler Bev Flynn, disgraced Blueshirt Michael Lowry and socialist republican Finian McGrath is a doozy.

I have to say, though, that the putative “Alliance for Change” government touted by Electric Enda would have trumped it. Considering Enda’s ruling out of any arrangements with FF or the Provos, and Jackie already having plighted his troth to Bertie, the only line-up possible would have been: Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens, the Desocrats, Lowry, Flynn, McGrath and our old friend Tony Gregory. As implausible configurations go, that one would have had Amanda Brunker beat. But would it have been the least plausible coalition ever seen in Leinster House? No, it would not.

Let us now enter the Tardis and return to the aftermath of the 1948 election. That time around, Fianna Fáil remained easily the largest party, returning with one more seat than all opposition parties put together. However, after sixteen straight years of FF government and the hardships caused by the Economic War and the Emergency, it was not surprising that FF would suffer a dip in popularity, and in the end Dev returned with 68 seats out of 147, six short of a majority with a dozen fairly diverse independents holding the balance of power.

What would have seemed to be the most plausible outcome would have been yet another FF-led government, not least because Fine Gael at that time seemed to be in terminal decline, returning a mere 31 deputies, with its vote bobbing along around the 20% mark and having been wiped out in large swathes of the state – only returning three TDs in the whole of Connacht, for instance. But that doesn’t account for the ingenuity of the Irish TD sniffing a chance at power, and thus the wondrous First Inter-Party Government was born.

Let’s consider the forces involved in this government. You had Fine Gael, the Free State party, the Commonwealth party, the bolthole for dispossessed Unionists and Redmondites. It was the party of Oriel House and the 77 executions, the party that ran the Saorstát with an iron fist for ten years, the party of then barely reconstructed Blueshirtism. It was, by any standard, an extremely conservative party, representing in the main the interests of the South Dublin upper bourgeoisie and the big ranchers.

You had Clann na Poblachta, a party made up largely, though not exclusively, of former IRA men. These were guys who had spent ten years opposing the 1937 Bunreacht, who had tried in 1939 to launch a war against England, and who during the Emergency had dissented from the almost unanimous support for neutrality in trying to line up Ireland with the Axis. Having been ferociously repressed by Fianna Fáil, they then gave that up for a bad job, abruptly became a constitutional party, and began merrily cannibalising the Fianna Fáil electorate. Their programme was militantly republican on the national question and, by the standards of the time, extremely leftwing on social and economic issues – in other words, a souped-up version of Fianna Fáil’s 1926 programme.

You had Clann na Talmhan, who are unfortunately forgotten these days, but were a fascinating formation in their own right. This was a party of impoverished small farmers in the West and its main policy was radical land reform, in line with the Fianna Fáil programme but not with FF’s record in government. The interests of the CnaT base were fundamentally opposed to the big farmers who increasingly dominated FG.

You also had not one but two Labour parties, having split a few years previously and spent the election campaign smearing and slandering each other with wild abandon. If you think the SWP-Militant bunfights on Indymedia are bad, the Labourites of the 1940s make them look like the wusses they really are.

Put all these disparate groups together and you still weren’t close to a majority, so what transpired in 1948 was a coalition of five parties and a technical group of nine – count ’em – nine independents, none of whom agreed on anything except that they wanted to put FF out. These differences were bridged by the simple introduction of the abeyance principle – in other words, everybody forgot about their programmes and concentrated on the division of spoils. And it all went surprisingly smoothly, with the only big stumbling block Clann na Poblachta’s refusal to accept the FG leader, General Mulcahy, as Taoiseach. So FG put forward Costello for the top job, Mulcahy got a seat at cabinet in any case and that was that. And, as we know, this Frankenstein government lasted a whole three years, thus scundering all those smart alecks in Fianna Fáil who expected it to collapse within months.

There is another interesting aspect to 1948, which is that Fine Gael did not dominate the opposition. FG held a mere 31 seats, as against 19 for the two Labour parties, ten for Clann na Poblachta and seven for Clann na Talmhan. There was a distinct possibility of a Labour-Republican bloc, possibly involving the small farmers, supplanting FG as the second force in the state. But that would have required Norton and the other Labour leaders to play a long game, eschewing bums on seats in the short term for the big prize in the long term. We know of course what they chose, and the effect of their choice was to breathe new life into a moribund Fine Gael, and for decades to come condemn Labour to being not a challenger for power in its own right, but a small and docile appendage to FG.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Bertie does the supermarket sweep

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There are a number of stages to dealing with the results of an Irish election. First you stare at the TV and exclaim “What the hell kind of country is this?” Then you sleep on it. Then you sit down with a cup of tea and a chocolate gravy ring, crunch the numbers and convince yourself it all makes sense.

The results are, I suppose, only dramatic in that they falsified the polls. It’s remarkable, but five of the six parties were pretty much within a 1% deviation from their 2002 result, Fine Gael being the exception. So it’s pretty much as you were for Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Greens; the Provos were a bit unlucky in that their big surge in Donegal didn’t deliver at least one seat to compensate for their loss in Tallaght; and the Desocrats, the weakest of the big six, fell below critical mass. If there hadn’t been a slew of opinion polls, we might have thought the results pretty dull, but consistent polling predictions of a Fianna Fáil meltdown and big gains for the Greens and PSF had skewed our expectations.

On one level, this is sort of the antimatter version of the Scottish election – the reassertion of the competitive two-party system, after a collapse of the main opposition last time out, resulting in a squeeze on the small parties and independents. On another level, the presidential factor would have played a role. Not for the first time, Bertie has played chicken with the electorate and, faced with the very real prospect of Electric Enda becoming taoiseach, the electorate folded. Besides which, one can assume that with the bien-pensants’ predictions of an FF meltdown, the wish was father to the thought.

I’ll write separately about the republican and left votes, because they have some implications for how we might build an opposition in the future. But there are a few observations worth making.

Firstly, I was taken aback by FG’s enormous gain in seats, from 32 to 51. In retrospect, this could have been predicted. The Blueshirts had a genuinely horrible result in 2002, not only seeing their vote slump but, due to a lack of transfers, losing out badly in terms of seats – they should really have scored around 40 last time out. So, Electric Enda has energised Fine Gael and made it look like a halfway serious party again. Factor in a 5% gain in share of the vote, plus a decent level of transfers from eliminated Labour candidates, and you have a recipe for substantial seat gains. However, these gains come at the expense, not of Fianna Fáil, but the forces who capitalised on FG’s collapse last time – the Desocrats and centrist independents.

Speaking of the Desocrats, who may well end up folding as a party, I’m surprised to find myself rather sorry at McDowell bowing out of politics. He’s one of those people, like Alan Shatter or Bob McCartney, who I’ve never had time for politically but who do add something to public life. As in: he may have been a bastard, but he was a bastard with substance, and it says something about our political culture that he can be ousted by a lightweight like Lucinda Creighton.

As for Labour, well, Rabbitte made a rod for his own back with Mullingar. I could have told him this ages ago – the only time Labour ever gained from a close association with Fine Gael was in 1973, and the resulting government was so atrocious you wouldn’t want to see it repeated. He then made a second rod for his back by trying to give himself wiggle room for an alternative coalition. And, while the Green and Provo hordes may have been held off for the time being, a vote share below 10% and a notably elderly parliamentary party should give Labour members pause for thought.

As for Bertie, he has a few tasks ahead of him, not least putting together a stable majority. One may guess that Bev Flynn will get the whip back in the near future, but even so, the two “gene pool” indies and the two Desocrats won’t get him to the magic 83. Will he be willing to reach a non-coalition understanding with the Provos? Will Clever Trevor get his feet under the table? Only time will tell, but things don’t look long-term stable just yet.

And that’s just the electoral end of things. Will the multiple judicial tribunals into corruption actually start claiming scalps, bearing in mind that Mahon will be reconvened soon? What happens when the boom goes tits up? And what of the factional manoeuvring within Fianna Fáil itself? As Kinky Friedman sang, when the Lord closes the door, he opens a little window.

Saorstát social democracy

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Fresh from my success at calling the weekend polls, I’ll revisit the southern election. It hasn’t to date been very interesting, partly because the parties are saying very similar things about most of the big issues, and partly because the media are intent on making this a presidential campaign, which is bloody stupid in a parliamentary election with PRSTV voting.

Anyway, a presidential campaign suits Bertie, because even a jaded Bertie fast approaching his sell-by date trumps Electric Enda. Enda’s main success in this campaign has been to confirm his image as a likeable bloke with tons of energy. However, being a likeable bloke doesn’t get you the taoiseach’s job in and of itself. Even Jack Lynch, who was famously affable, was also a devious bastard of Bertie proportions when it suited him. Electric Enda, meanwhile, has failed to shake off the widespread perception that he’s, well, a little bit lightweight.

As I’ve indicated, I expect the Provos to do quite well this time out. Whatever about their national poll rating, all indications are that they are doing well in areas where they need to do well. The bookies are quoting them as holding their five seats and picking up their three targets in northside Dublin, but you also have to factor in two excellent chances in Donegal and sporting chances in Waterford, Wexford and Sligo. It will also be interesting to see whether PSF’s difficulty in attracting transfers is on the wane. So, depending on the rub of the green, their seat tally could be anything from 7 to 12. In any case, and whatever Gerry thinks, the southern membership wouldn’t be displeased if they didn’t get into government. Another five years of building up the organisation, grooming candidates and cannibalising the more plebeian sections of the Fianna Fáil and Labour bases would suit them down to the ground.

Labour illustrate how hard it is to make predictions under STV. Despite flatlining for months at around 12%, barely ahead of PSF, they are widely anticipated to pick up twice as many seats. But Labour won so many seats with narrow margins last time out that, again depending on the rub of the green, they could be up a little or down quite sharply. Apart from the Provos, Labour have a further difficulty in the rise of the Greens, who are no longer a niche party for tree-hugging hippies but are making a strong pitch for the votes of nice middle-class people with nice liberal opinions, which describes a big chunk of the Labour electorate, especially in greater Dublin. The Greens these days are cultivating a profile not far distant from Labour’s, only without the vestigial socialism and with a much less elderly parliamentary party. This is likely to be a long-term problem for Labour.

And, since this is supposed to be a left blog, I’ll do a quick review of the further left. The Socialist Party’s manifesto is just as dull as you would expect, although I was interested in them proclaiming “Water charges victories North and South”. Well, one of those was ten years ago, and the other comes under the heading of counting your chickens. Some windy platitudes on the North, as the SP aren’t keen to advertise their neo-unionism in the South – God knows why, because there are lots of people in the South who wish the North was a thousand miles away. And really, extremely youthful appearances from Joe and Clare in their official photos. Have the leaders of the working class discovered Botox? I think we should be told.

Next to the Socialist Workers Party (Swiss Toni prop.), running under the “People Before Profit” rubric. In years gone by, the SWP used to lash the SP for its parliamentary illusions, but now appears to believe that Irish politics can be transformed if only party honcho and friend of this blog Richard Boyd Barrett gets a seat in Dún Laoghaire. I really recommend having a look at Richie’s address to the proletariat of Kingstown if you get the chance. I know Richie has the theatrical gene, but I couldn’t help thinking of Groucho in Horse Feathers singing “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”. Richie has principles, you see, and if you don’t like his principles, he can always get some more. As always with the SWP, the tone could be more accurately captured with a liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks and Yos.

Skipping lightly over the Workers Party, which is running exactly the kind of low-profile campaign it usually does, we conclude with the WP’s former comrades in the Togliattite Irish Socialist Network, who are running the personable John O’Neill in Finglas. John has two key pledges, neither of which he has a hope in hell of fulfilling. The first is that he won’t coalesce with the right, but will try to forge an alliance with Séamus Healy and Joe Higgins (neither of whom, by the way, are looking terribly secure). The second pledge is that he’ll take the average industrial wage – although the Provos take the average industrial wage, and it hasn’t waterproofed them against corruption. Still, I was very taken with his mock pizza ad. A bit of humour in politics is never a bad thing.

The mathematics of coalition

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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.

Run Rabbitte run

Irish Labour is facing the upcoming election without any serious hope of making progress, and how that has come to pass is a story in itself. A couple of years back, Labour was riding high in the polls, and, not for the first time, looked to have a serious chance of displacing the Blueshirts as the major opposition party in the Free State – if only the party leadership could press home its advantage. That “if only” is important. Pat Rabbitte, in comparison to other party leaders, gets terrific notices – he’s very highly regarded by the Leinster House lobby correspondents, and has a reputation as a great orator amongst the drunks and insomniacs who watch Oireachtas Report. But the party’s apparent strength has turned out to be its real weakness – in return for a mess of pottage called the Mullingar Accord, Pat has committed Labour to a strategy of clinging like grim death to the rotting corpse of Fine Gael. Recent polling shows Labour flatlining at around 11%, which represents no improvement at all on the last election.

The arithmetic is simple. To the limited extent that Labour has prospered in recent years, it has done so by eating into the traditional Fine Gael electorate – in particular, colonising territory in Dublin historically occupied by FG’s nearly defunct liberal wing. If Labour is to advance further – maybe not in terms of seats in this election, but lining up constituencies for future gains – it can only realistically do so by putting the squeeze on the Blueshirts. But one of the unstated provisions of Mullingar is that Labour should turn its back on developing winnable seats and concentrate in these areas on providing transfers for FG candidates. This point is not lost on activists in a number of constituencies who have put a lot of effort into rebuilding Labour’s organisation and profile, in the hope of delivering TDs in the not too distant future, only to be told that the only purpose of their candidates is to run sweeper for Enda.

Not only this, but Labour has a fight on its hands to even hold its own. The best bet at the minute is that the party will come out of the election with more or less the same number of TDs that it currently holds, give or take one or two, but even a small swing could be catastrophic. At the last election, no less than seven of Labour’s 21 seats were won with narrow margins over Fine Gael, and would thus be vulnerable to even a minor revival in the FG vote, or to Sinn Féin Nua continuing to nibble at Labour’s working-class base, or to the Greens squeezing Labour in the middle-class trendy vote – all of which would be consistent with current polling. It follows from all this, as night follows day, that the best strategy for Labour in purely electoral terms is to kick the shit out of Fine Gael. It should be, like, obvious. But then, Pat Rabbitte is a man who spent the best years of his life on the ard chomhairle of the Workers Party, while being completely unaware that the Official IRA existed.

For the last couple of decades the second largest party in the state has had no clear idea of what it stands for. Now, to give him credit, Electric Enda has a few ideas, and those ideas are pretty rightwing. On health, he has introduced the concept of the deserving sick. On education, FG proposals have sent the teacher unions screaming into the warm embrace of Minister Mary Hanafin. And then there have been Enda’s forays into law and order, where he has vainly attempted to outdo Interior Minister McDowell in the Dirty Harry stakes. And what has Pat said about this? Has he attempted to put manners on his putative coalition partner? No he has not. The practical outcome of Mullingar seems to be that Enda can say whatever pops into his head, while Pat can say frig all.

Nor can Labour make a serious pitch for the protest vote this time out. The ongoing Shell to Sea campaign in Mayo provides the clearest evidence of this. Footage of gardaí baton-charging old age pensioners should be a godsend for any opposition party worth its salt – and Labour’s weakness on the ground in Mayo is not really the point, Ireland is a small country and the national leadership could and should have spoken out. But the Corrib pipeline is in Enda’s constituency, Enda supports the project, and therefore Pat can’t say anything of substance. The upshot is that somebody will make electoral hay from Rossport – it may be local independents, the Provos or even the Éamon Ó Cuív faction of Fianna Fáil – but it surely to God won’t be Labour.

These facts have impressed themselves on Rabbitte’s critics within the party, of whom there are many. Nor has grumbling been confined to notorious malcontents like Declan Bree or Henry Haughton. There are lots of Old Labourites who would be keen to wrest back control of their party from the Sticks, and are discreetly sharpening knives even now. (Not to say, of course, that all the criticism is principled in nature. There are those in the parliamentary party who worry that Pat’s visceral hostility to Fianna Fáil is ruling out a coalition option.) One hears regular reports of anti-Mullingar sentiment in Labour Youth. Most importantly, I think, is the stance of the “rebuilders” who have been putting in heroic amounts of spadework in the constituencies. There are quite a few ambitious young councillors who don’t stand a chance of getting in the Dáil this time around, but might well be contenders in future elections. They are less than gruntled at the suggestion that their main task is to elect Blueshirts.

The most coherent alternative to Mullingar is that put forward by ATGWU regional secretary Mick O’Reilly. This is based on the idea that Labour could struggle for power in its own right – first, by attempting to maximise its own representation, then by projecting itself as the main force in a progressive alliance which would encompass Sinn Féin Nua and leftwing independents (possibly also the Greens), and which would, on current figures, be stronger in the Dáil than Fine Gael. This alliance would refuse to enter into any right-led coalition (although Mick acknowledges that this would mean the unprecedented situation of a party actually sticking to its electoral commitments). It would then fight for political hegemony in the southern state, instead of passively accepting its lot in life as junior partner to either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

Mick’s perspective is a seductive one, and its appeal to those activists in the Labour Party who are trying to rebuild in local areas is easy to see. It would certainly be a vast improvement on the course followed by Rabbitte and the hard-right Stickie faction who currently control the party. But is Pat interested in a grandiose scheme to try and put Labour in a dominant position in the state? No he is not. He seems perfectly happy with his lot in life. He’s firmly ensconced in the party leadership (at least this side of the election). Labour may not be a great prize, but it’s a hell of a sight better than Democratic Left. Apparently his only remaining ambition is to be Electric Enda’s tánaiste. And, on current evidence, he won’t even achieve that. What a comedown from his days as a stentorian Stalinist.