This Broadsheet column was written last Sunday aand appeared online on Monday morning (April 20th 2020) under the headline: They should be in it together
In 1945, just as the Second World War was ending, Britain faced a general election. Would post-war Britain be shaped by the Conservatives under Winston Churchill or by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, a partner in the war time unity government.
The choice was clear, but the voters had no doubt who they wanted. They resoundingly rejected Churchill, the man who had led Britain to a victory that had sometimes seemed uncertain and opted instead for Attlee, the understated but progressive social reformer.
While historians offer several reasons for Churchill’s defeat, it boils down to voters seeing that a good wartime leader is not necessarily a good peace time leader. The skills (and policies) required to lead a country through a time of crisis and external threat are not the ones you need when you are trying to rebuild after that crisis. And vice-versa.
It is a simple point that has been missed by the why national/unity government is a bad idea commentary of the last few weeks. Rather than critically analysing the options facing us, most just repeat the mantra that national/unity government can’t work, shouldn’t work and mustn’t work.
The problem is that their analysis is based on a false premise, namely that we take a far from clear election result – from before the Coronavirus changed our lives – and extrapolate it into a coherent government for five years. We cannot say, with any certainty, will happen in four-months’ time, so why do we suppose we can plan effectively now for what will happen in 4 years?
What we need is to have a stable and secure government in place for the next eighteen months, to two years, to take us through this crisis and get us out safely on the other side. When that is done, we can see what damage we have sustained, assess the costs, see the state of the world around us and commence the process of not just rebuilding, but building anew.
We could have an election in late 2021 or early 2022 with all the parties and groups offering policies and ideas informed by what they had learned in government while tackling the crisis.
I do believe a national/unity government makes sense. It is a view strengthened by the likelihood that the current Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael led process is going nowhere.
It may take a few more weeks for the two main parties to see this, but when they do they will be left with two options: admit that they cannot agree a government and go back to the voters, at a time when it is safe to run an election, or look at the one remaining untried option.
As the fictional Sherlock Holmes put it:
“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
It is basic logic.
I do understand that national/unity government is a bit of a clunky description and that one person’s idea of what constitutes a national government is not another’s. What I am talking about here is a government comprising of all the Dáil parties who wish to participate.
No party is compelled to join, each can decide to stay out. But equally, no party can veto the involvement of another, nor can it veto the establishment of the government itself.
That means Sinn Féin can join the government, but it cannot place conditions on its involvement. It cannot say that it will only go into government if Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are excluded. The same applies to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens and any other parties or Independents who wish to join. No vetoes. People can exclude themselves; they cannot exclude others.
Finding out who wishes to serve could be done by indicative votes in the Dáil. Remember when we urged the House of Commons to resolve its issues over Brexit by indicative votes? Well, perhaps it is time for us to look at that option. If the parties cannot agree a fair share-out of departmental responsibilities among themselves the fallback position, or backstop… if you will, could be their allocation by the d’Hondt process, as happens in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Once parties indicate that they wish to join, they then move quickly to agree a short and simple Program for Government with the single goal of getting the country safely through the pandemic and achieving a speedy mass vaccination programme once a safe vaccine is available. Once that is done, there is an orderly end to its mandate.
There is another model, by the way. One many would regard as simpler: a government comprising just the three main parties: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. A three-way split with each party having five places at Cabinet.
Either one works for me, once it can be put speedily in place.
In normal times, I would be implacably opposed to Sinn Féin’s participation in government. But these are not normal times. I do not retract or disavow any of the criticisms I have made of Sinn Féin here, or elsewhere, over the past few years.
I do not have to change my views on Sinn Féin, but I can see that voters have. I may disagree with what they have decided. I may resent Sinn Féin’s support being broadly equal to that of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but to try and ignore that reality in the face of this challenge is churlish.
Speaking of my criticising people and questioning policies, this week’s Phoenix magazine accurately quotes me as attacking the joint framework document. I am very critical of it. Yes, there are some good things in it, such as the childcare proposals and the education and research opportunities, but its biggest problem are the things that are not in it.
How can you spend four weeks in policy talks in the middle of a pandemic and not include, in the resulting document, any consideration of what happens if we are faced with a second Covid-19 wave?
Surely that is item one on the agenda for any incoming government whether it is for 6 months, 18 months or five years?
There are many other things missing as well. There is nothing on the changing nature of work, particularly growing issues with the gig economy and bogus self-employment.
Neither is there any mention of cybersecurity, an issue I raised here several times, as I highlighted the paucity of our national cyber defence. There will be a great deal more online commerce and remote working, especially from home, in post-pandemic Ireland yet we remain one of the least well defended countries in terms of cybersecurity.
Our national infrastructure, including our hospital infrastructure, is a sitting duck. Why did no one in the two parties think to mention this key issue, even once? Just as irresponsible is the insipid reference – I cannot in good faith call it a commitment – to national defence and the Defence Forces – the organisation to whom I believe primary responsibility for cybersecurity should be given.
So, what happens now?
As I said earlier, I think the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats will not want to be seen as dismissing the framework out of hand and will engage genuinely with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael negotiating teams over the next week or two to see if there is a basis for moving to forwards. So will the various groupings of independents.
But I do not see the process progressing beyond that.
I simply cannot see what is in it for any of the smaller parties to jump on board, especially when some sources are saying that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are virtually decided on which departments they will take, keeping three cordoned off for a third party.
What, no room for a fourth party, or even an Independent minister? Not to mention the suggestion that Martin and Varadkar have agreed on a rotating Taoiseach and beefed-up office of the Tánaiste.
So, it looks like Sherlock Martin and Dr Varadkar will spend the next few weeks exhausting every other impossibility before realising that the last remaining option, they one they rejected two months ago, is the only viable one.
Either that or it is a second election.
While a second election is both fair and inherently democratic, it is still an admission, by all parties, of failure. The alternative is an opportunity for politicians to show voters, particularly the newer generation of voters, that for all its faults and failings, politics works.