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The elephant in the room June 11, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Irish Politics.
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(via politics.ie)

According to the Sunday Business Post, former national organiser for Labour Pat Magner is predicting that the party with enter into coalition with Fianna Fáil after the next election, posing some obvious difficulties for Pat Rabbitte.

This is hardly surprising, of course, and it's well known that there are members of the Labour Party who'd be happier in coalition with FF than with their current buddies, Fine Gael. Similarly, there are people in Labour who have an interest in making life as uncomfortable as possible for Rabbitte and, given the corner he (Rabbitte) has painted himself into with his pre-electoral pledge, Magner's comments must be read with that in mind.

Still, what we do see in Magner's comments is perhaps the first utterance of what will likely become a recurring theme over the next twelve months: the need for Labour to act in the 'national interest' when it comes to forming a government.

Magner, who served under four Labour Party leaders, said that it was still the duty of the Dail to elect a taoiseach and ‘‘Pat Rabbitte has to play his part in that’’.

‘‘Firstly because it is not his decision whether or not the Labour Party will enter government with Fianna Fail, that decision is a matter for the Labour Party. Labour Party members have been called upon to form governments when the country was on its knees.

‘‘In this case, we’re being asked to forgo government in a country that’s awash with money, and which we’re saying is being badly spent.”

We've heard this before, and we'll hear it again. In the event of Labour and Fine Gael (and, possibly, the Greens, although they seem to be playing a smarter game than their Labour colleagues) not having the numbers to form a government, Labour will have a duty to go in with Fianna Fáil. The country needs a government after all, and surely you don't want the Shinners at the Cabinet table!

Of course, there is the other alternative: the coalition that dare not speak its name. Labour could always stand aloof from both the larger parties, and let them go into government together. Surely if Labour has a duty to hold its nose and vote for Ahern (or whoever) as Taoiseach, the same duty applies no less to Fine Gael. And would the policies of such a coalition be so much worse than what Labour could achieve in government to justify deferring any longer term electoral advantage Labour might gain by staying in opposition?

Let's not be naive about this. It's long been a bit of a dream of the Irish left to force such a coalition, the thinking being that this would show the electorate that Civil War differences were fundamentally meaningless, and would force the famous realignment of Irish politics into left and right. That's not going to happen. Irish politics has already realigned, but everyone's moved to the centre. Labour isn't going to start proposing the nationalisation of the banks just because it's the largest party in opposition. And Fianna Fáil isn't going to hold a seminar on Hayek (or, indeed, develop any kind of coherent political philosophy) during their getaway on Inchydoney just because Labour's sitting opposite.

However, Labour does have a lot to lose by entering coalition with either FF or FG at the moment. They're already vulnerable on the left from Sinn Féin (although the current extent of this threat is often overstated). If SF manages to, at the very least, consolidate its vote (if not increase it) at the next election, it could be rather nasty thorn in the side of Labour in government.

Magner talks about 'a government that's awash with money'. Can he be quite sure that the money will still be there in five years time? Or that, for example, a Labour Minister for Health would be so effective that any criticism would be empty? Remember, any coalition with Fianna Fáil will inevitably have a Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance. As long as that's the case, any scope Labour might have for any kind of serious improvement in public services or redistribution of wealth will be extremely limited. And we can be sure that SF will take full advantage.

Of course, when it comes to weighing up short-term gains in office with longer term drawbacks, you don't have to be psychic to guess how the decision is likely to go.Still, as long as an FF/FG coalition isn't seriously considered, Labour can always plead that they had no choice but to go into government, 'for the good of the country'.

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