Irish people have a problem. The political system is broke. The 2020 campaign is well underway; however, despite people carefully choosing a candidate to vote for, they have no idea what the government will be once the votes are counted. It is almost certain that no party will win an overall majority, so the new government will have to be a coalition between two or more parties. However, the electorate is not being offered a choice of coalition options. Therefore when they vote, they are buying a pig in a poke.
The Irish system is different from most western democracies as the traditional divide was not on a “left” versus “right” basis. Most other countries had a strong left block to represent the working classes, the Labour movement, and a robust right block that typically sought support from the middle class and business owners, a conservative movement. Usually, the Labour movement supported government intervention in the economy and society and supported the idea of the Welfare state. The idea behind the welfare state was that the government should provide a safety net for people “from the cradle to the grave” by providing health care, education, and housing. The left believed that these services should be funded through general taxation. The deal was people paid higher taxes while the government provided housing, education, and healthcare.
Conservatives took the view that people know how to spend their own money better than the state does, so they typically advocated for lower taxation and believed that the “invisible hand” of the market would be more efficient than the state in the allocation of resources. US president Ronald Reagan explained this idea when he claimed: “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” While Magret Thatcher said, “….there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” In the Uk Labour were the traditional left-wing party, and the Tories or the Conservatives were the right-wing party. While in the US from FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s, the Democrats were the party that favored government intervention while the Republicans, particularly after Barry Goldwater was a presidential candidate in the 1960s, advocated for the free market and smaller government.
Ireland’s political parties did not develop along these lines. No Irish party would argue against a public health care system or public schools, as the Republicans do in the US. All Irish parties would be labeled left-wing in the states because they are all in favor of public healthcare and public education. The divide in Ireland was not on a left/ right basis.
Irish politics was dominated by the split over “the Treaty” and the civil war that followed. After the 1918 election, Sinn Fein was the dominant political force. However, the party split over the treaty. Michael Collins was the most prominent leader on the pro-treaty side While Eamon DeValera was the leader of the anti-treaty side. The people who supported Collins would form the Fine Gael (FG) party while DeValera founded the Fianna Fail (FF) party. Both of these parties could best be described as parties of the center. At times they moved slightly left, Fianna Fail’s house-building program of the 1930s or Fine Gaels “Just Society” program of the late 1960s or they moved more to the right, the FG party in the 1920s and 1930s and FF under Haughey and Ahern. These two parties dominated Irish government since the foundation of the state. The most significant difference between these two center parties was the Civil War.
However, the Irish system was often described as a “two and a half party” system because there was a Labour party also. Labour never became a major force during the 20th century because Ireland was a very conservative country. The influence of the catholic church meant that any organization espousing left-wing views found it difficult to gain mass support. Labour did play a role in government- entering coalitions with both FG and FF- but they never won enough seats to lead a government. They often seemed quite happy to support the policies of the bigger party with whom they were in coalition.
There have been a large number of smaller left-wing parties that have emerged at various stages since independence. However, it is often said that the first item on the agenda of these new left-wing parties is “the split.” Sinn Fein The Workers Party split and formed the Workers Party while a further split created Democratic Left. Even today, the left is fragmented- The Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, People Before Profit, The Anti-Austerity Alliance, and RISE often share similar policies and have overlapping membership. Still, they can’t seem to come together on a common platform.
There needs to be a realignment is the Irish political system, so voters have a real choice. The big two center parties have seen their voting base reduced from over 80% to 50% or less. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the bitter Civil War and after their co-operation over the life of the last government, it seems that the obstacles to a grand coalition between FF and FG have disappeared. Plus FF and FG are already coalising on County Councils up and down the country.
The emergence of Sinn Fein as a significant player on the left offers the opportunity for them to lead a coherent left-wing alternative. However, as the people head to the polls, they don’t have a choice between two distinct governments. Instead, they will vote based on promises made or a local personality. Therefore you get politicians offering both tax cuts and improved public services. Other countries realize that, in the short term, you can’t have both. When the election is over, people are going to be disappointed. They won’t get the policies for which they voted. Instead, two or three parties and some independents will cobble together a deal that leaves everyone, except the new ministers, unhappy.
Let this election play out. See where the numbers land. The media will demand that the politicians form a government to provide stability, but unless they can create a government without breaking their election promises, then they should not. Instead, they should come together with like-minded parties and offer a platform that could achieve a comfortable majority. Give the people a choice of two alternative governments. A center-right government of FF and FG and a center-left government led by SF and including Labour, the Social Democrats, and People before Profit. Once the people have two clear platforms to choose from, they can make an informed decision. If it takes a second or a third election to get to this situation, then so be it. Instead of negotiating a program for government after the election, get it done beforehand- give the people a real option.