Minority report: slow progress rather than cruise control

16 Sep 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 22 Sep 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

A minority government – as Dublin is set to find out – is different from one in control of its own destiny. This has knock-on effects for anyone wanting to engage, especially those interested in new legislation or policy.

Results in the May elections were not exactly surprising but, while the outcome at the polls was predictable, there were and there remain questions about what comes next.

The main figures are familiar but a stronger opposition goes hand in hand with a weaker government – and how the Executive works together with the entirety of the legislature will be interesting.

No, not Stormont – south of the border, in Dublin, where the Dáil has seen its own political upheavals.

The previous coalition government is no more and, in its stead and after much negotiating, Enda Kenny will continue as Taoiseach and Fine Gael in government.

However, the party fell well short of a majority – their 50 seats not even close to holding the balance in the 158-member lower house of the Oireachtas.

An assortment of independent TDs have joined with them but it is still a new thing in Irish politics, a minority government, itself only made possible (and vaguely tenable) by Fianna Fáil’s promise to facilitate the basics of government through the next three budgets.

Goings on south of the border have an obvious impact up here – cross-border programmes, economic and social links, and on and on – and many businesses or organisations have an interest, directly or indirectly, on both sides of that red line on the map.

One of the main areas of cooperation between north and south is in drawing down EU funds, which are often handed out on a cross-border basis. This is of huge importance to Northern Ireland, particularly the third sector, while if the minority government lasts it will also be the southern mandate that has to deal with the myriad complications arising from Brexit.

What does the new reality mean for political engagement Down South?

Don’t get too comfortable

Garrett Fennell is one of the pre-eminent political strategists in the Republic of Ireland. Later this month Public Affairs Ireland (PAI), of which he is a founding director, is holding a conference about engagement in the new era of minority government, Policy Development and Legislation in a Changed Political Environment.

Scope spoke with him about the Dublin landscape – where the opposition holds all the cards, why difficult decisions will get the long finger, and how lobbying on both sides of the House could reap rewards.

But first of all, he is not sure the situation itself is sustainable – after all, Fianna Fáil are Fine Gail’s main rivals, not facilitators.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that the government will last the duration of the arrangement between Fine Gail and Fianna Fáil. I think it will do well to last a year.

“The particular arithmetic and dynamics within government haven’t shown themselves to be robust and opposition parties aren’t in politics to remain in opposition. They are there to get into power.

“Some would say this means the government has responsibility but not power, while Fianna Fáil has power but doesn’t have responsibility. It is a really strong positon for them to be in and equally a very, very difficult position for the government.

“It allows Fianna Fáil to pick key issues to prioritise, it allows them to make particular demands, allows them to conduct themselves with an eye on the next election – and they are in a position to have a large effect in determining when the next election will take place, which in itself is a hugely powerful situation.

“If Fianna Fáil see attitudes are in a particular direction and they are in a strong position to do well in the polls, I think they will try and act on that rather than continue with this arrangement. If they wish, they will very quickly be able to create or engineer a situation the government can’t meet them on.”

Mr Fennell cites water charges as one potential issue, noting that Fianna Fáil recently called for their abolition.

Prepare for populism

The issue of water charges is just an example of where Irish politics could suffer most during the minority period: the inability to make hard decisions.

A measure that is unpopular but ultimately (in the opinion of a given politician or party) for the best - that is as good a characterisation as any of such hard decisions.

If Fine Gail governs in fear of troughs in opinion polls, and of Fianna Fáil forcing through an election at such a time, they will struggle to do difficult things. And the Republic of Ireland is not in such a glorious position that all the right choices are easy.

Mr Fennell says that the worry then is that populism fills the gap vacated by leadership.

“I think there’s a huge risk that will happen. Water charges have been kicked to a commission by the government, and then it will be sent to parliamentary committee.”

He said that “rather than the government making decisions and implementing them” the dynamics mean a lengthy process where, at worst, responsibility for making choices is spread so thinly that no-one accepts any at all.

But, as with all problems, there are also opportunities for people who want to make things happen.

While the structure is very different, in one way Dublin has become more like Belfast – if you have public affairs aims, the best way to get things done is to please both of the primary mutual antagonists.

In Belfast, the DUP and Sinn Féin are in coalition, but often engagement takes place with each individually. It is not in the interests of either Fine Gail or Fianna Fáil that this latest Irish government is a do-nothing catastrophe, with the public taking the view (or having it reinforced) that TDs are unable to work together for the public interest.

It is bad enough that the whole legislative process will necessarily slow down, for every bill and motion before the Dáil, but parliament grinding to a stop reflects poorly on all elected representatives.

So, if you are an individual or organisation who wants to get something done, present it in an apolitical way, and in a fashion that works for the two big parties, and you are in business.

In the minority – but not never

Of course, the idea of minority government is not new and they are not necessarily a disaster.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP formed a minority regime in May (albeit only two seats short of a majority) and not for the first time; Alex Salmond did the same thing when he was elected in 2007.

While Ms Sturgeon will not have danced through Holyrood when the results came in, the SNP is a much stronger party now than ten years ago and these results prove minorities are not necessarily a disaster (indeed, they might just reflect the new political diversity that has grown over the past decade or so).

To that end, the PAI conference has secured some very interesting speakers, including Dr Jim Johnston, who has worked with the Scottish Parliament since 1999 and is currently clerk to the Finance Committee. His experience in working alongside minority governments should provide fascinating insights for anyone interested in public affairs.

Fine Gael Chief Whip, Regina Doherty TD, will also speak. The smaller the majority a government has, the harder any Chief Whip has to be. So, when the majority is a negative number this role becomes crucial – and one to watch.

A new PM, official opposition at Stormont, minority in Dublin, and Brexit. We live in interesting times.

Policy Development and Legislation in a Changed Political Environment takes place on September 30 – find out more here.

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