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Michael McDowell: Does anyone really believe that a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition would be riskier or worse than a minority FG-Labour partnership?

The former Justice Minister and Tanaiste says forget the scare-mongering about a hung Dail and look at those who can work through a robust programme for government...

by Michael McDowell | February 15, 2016

At this half-way point in the “race”, polls indicate that the Labour and Fine Gael coalition partners are lagging behind the field and are finding the going very heavy and not to their liking. The whip is being shown well out from the post. But the reaction is still sluggish.

Enough for now with racing analogies.

The Irish General Election is not a “race”; it is 40 separate constituency contests.

There has been much blather of late about a “hung Dáil” and “instability”.

Let’s get one thing straight – the Constitution envisages a Dáil elected roughly in proportion to the way votes are cast separately in each multi-seat constituency. The days of any one party getting a majority of Dáil seats because they have an effective majority support (44% plus of the 1st Preference votes cast) are gone.

The people, in our system, elect a proportionate Dáil by separate constituencies – then the Dáil collectively and by a simple majority selects a Taoiseach. That Taoiseach has had to secure that majority by doing a deal between parties and independents – unless the Taoiseach’s party has by itself the support of a majority of TDs.

That is the way it is – and nearly always has been.

Scare-mongering about a ‘hung Dáil’

So, with separate parties fighting the election on separate manifestos with separate “red line” issues, it really does not help to start talking or scare-mongering about a “hung Dáil”.

Each party is trying to maximise its number of seats with a view to taking a decisive role in the selection of a Taoiseach.

Even Independents are driven by the same political imperative; nobody is seeking election to be “part of the audience”.

So there is nothing inherently “unstable” about an election producing a scenario in which no combination of parties have committed unconditionally in advance to forming a majority.

Even with their vote transfer pact, Labour and Fine Gael are separately laying down “red-line” preconditions for the possible formation of a Government in which they will participate (such as Labour’s redline demand for an Abortion referendum).

If you seek election to the Dáil, you are seeking a mandate to decide on who forms the Government. You can’t avoid that constitutional duty if your vote matters.

What would perhaps qualify as “unstable” would be a minority Government with no reliable commitment to implementing any programme for government. A FG-Labour Government depending on the “day-to-day”, “issue-to-issue” support of an un-committed group of independent or splinter group of TDs is arguably more “unstable” than a coalition of parties who have negotiated a programme for five years of government.

Michael McDowell column 4

But the capacity of parties to go into government (and to negotiate a decent programme) depends on the strength of Dáil numbers given to them by the electorate.

That post-election process of forming the Government is not “chaos” or “instability”. It is exactly what our Constitution envisages. It is also the European norm.

Poll data and academic punditry, as I warned last week, is unreliable.

If, as we are told, the Social Democrats are on 4%, it may mean nothing more than that their three outgoing TDs are going to be re-elected. Unless they have winning candidates in other constituencies, the 4% figure may be irrelevant.

Likewise for Labour, the fact that they got 12 seats in the past with 8% of the national first-preference vote is no guide at all as to how they will fare in this election.

Why?

In the past Labour was always the biggest Left party. So even with a low vote they attracted second preferences from other left wing parties and Fine Gael voters.

This time it looks, on current polling trends, as if they will lag behind other Left party candidates in nearly all or very many of their constituencies.

Sinn Féin and other Left candidates will be ahead of them in the elimination race as the counts go on in most constituencies.

Change is coming either way

If Labour are at 8% and Sinn Féin are at 15% on first preferences, the Left and protest vote may coalesce around Sinn Fein and other Left candidates in terms of second and later preferences. There may, on current trends, be few transfers in practice from FG candidates (either by way of surpluses or eliminations). That might yield “Workers Party”-type electoral outcomes for Labour.

Will the Government’s latest “Scare the S**t Out of the Voters” strategy (I only use the language of an anonymous Government spokesman) work?

Does anyone really believe that a FG-FF coalition would be “riskier” or “worse” for the economy in terms of employment, interest rates. investor confidence or sustaining the “recovery” than a minority FG-Labour coalition with independent support?

Some might well say that they are reluctant to leave Sinn Féin as the largest opposition party.

On the other hand, leaving FF and SF together for a short period as the alternative Government to a shaky FG-Labour minority mish-mash might be just as scary in the long term.

Unless things suddenly change in the polls, we are in for a change of some sort in Government.

Enda will still be Taoiseach when the Dáil reconvenes. But I doubt whether he will scare the voters into handing him and Labour another chance.

Ignore the waffle

The post-austerity voters are just too battle-hardened to be scared by a phantom “instability” argument.

Tax-cutting promises are falling on deaf ears. Health U-turns are too obvious to be forgotten or forgiven. Many voters know that the issues of water charges and property tax hikes have been “kicked down the road” to create a crisis for any minority Government in 2018.

What people want is a competent Government that will agree on a credible, reliable and robust programme for government.

Look at every constituency separately. Do the maths. Ignore the waffle and the scaremongering. And remember above all that voting intention surveys must be adjusted to take account of who actually turns up to vote.

Back briefly to racing analogies.

Most will be fallers in elections. Only a minority pass the “winning post”. And even for them the places in the winners enclosure are negotiated well after the race is run.

Michael McDowell is a senior counsel (and a very good one, at that) and former TD who served as Justice Minister and Tanaiste, as well as leader of the PDs. He will contribute to the Paddy Power Blog during the 2016 Irish General Election

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