Politics is supposed to be a simple enough activity. The basic idea is that various parties put forward ideas for how the country should be governed, the voters choose between the various offerings, and the people who get the largest number of seats in the parliament then have the power to form a Government that implements their ideas. If there’s such a thing as “winning”, then it is by achieving the seats necessary for Government, allowing you to do the things that you have always wanted the country to do.
Ireland in early 2020 has an entirely different version of politics, one where the number one priority of many politicians is to stay out of Government at all costs. The Labour Party, for example, has very firm ideas about how Ireland should be governed. It styles itself, whether accurately or not, as the party of working people. It tells us that if it had a chance to run the country, it would change things so that people on lower pay got a slightly larger share of our national wealth. Labour finds itself, after the election, in a position to have a seat at the table at the next Government, but it is refusing to take part at all.
The three larger parties, meanwhile, are engaged in a weird inverted form of musical chairs where, unlike in the traditional version, the objective is not to claim a seat when the music stops, but to be the last one standing. Of the three of them, only Sinn Fein is making a convincing fist of saying that it wants to lead a Government – and that’s because Sinn Fein is safe in the knowledge that it’s the only one of them who cannot, based on the numbers elected by the people, actually lead a Government. That party is well aware that it will be better off in opposition than in Government. Forcing the other two into Government together would be the long-term political equivalent of winning the Euromillions for six weeks in a row.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael know that, as well, or at least their members do. Fine Gael is palpably hungry for opposition and has a very strong argument for wanting it – the voters, after all, voted to change the Dáil completely, which suggests a desire for a different Government. And Fine Gaelers, psychologically, have spent most of the last century comforting themselves with the argument that the voters deserve everything they get for electing Fianna Fáil governments. “We told you so” is hardwired into the DNA of a Fine Gael member, and you can tell that they’re more than eager to sit on the sidelines and sigh knowingly at the electorate for the next five years.
Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, is the only one of the three main parties that cannot enter Government without breaking a fundamental promise to the electorate. Micheál Martin promised faithfully in the election that he would not put Fine Gael back into office, and he also promised faithfully that he would not put Sinn Fein into Government. He cannot now form a Government without breaking his word to the voters as his very first act.
And so that leaves you and me, dear reader, living in a country that nobody actually wants to Govern. We have a bunch of politicians who are all quite desperate for somebody else to form the Government, and to be allowed the chance to oppose it. Why is this?
On the one hand, its our fault as an electorate, because when the politicians asked us to pick a party to run the country, we said no thanks, we’ll have a great big mess instead, if you don’t mind. It’s not all their fault. As an electorate we’ve played a classic reality television show trick on our politicians, telling them they can have the thing they want but only if they make a complete fool of themselves to get it. It’s the “Love Island” Dáil, in that respect.
But there’s also something more fundamental at play, which is this: Every politician seems utterly convinced that the next Government is going to be unpopular, and it is better for them to be in opposition.
There’s probably a couple of reasons for this, and one of them, at least, is fair enough. Since the next Government is going to be a coalition, no party is going to be able to enact even most of its manifesto promises. In fact, they’ll face the electorate the next time while being held responsible for the actions of an entirely different party. To many politicians, that might seem like an unacceptable risk – if you’re going to be hanged, you might as well hang for your own ideas, and not somebody else’s.
But there’s something else at play too – a sense in political circles that some of the country’s problems simply can’t be solved in a way that voters will reward. That the solution to homelessness, for example, involves breaking more eggs than it lays. That the health service has problems that are so deeply entrenched that solving them means suffering through nurses strikes and mass unrest, while the benefit of the reforms might not be felt for a decade. That Climate policy, while – politicians believe – necessary, comes at a very high political cost but absolutely no observable benefits to the average voter.
It’s no coincidence then that the only party that seems actively to seek Government is the party that genuinely doesn’t much care about popularity. The Greens, alone amongst the parties in the Dáil, would happily accept getting wiped out at the next election if they could trade that for five years in charge to turn the island into a single enormous cabbage patch. That’s why they’re the ones everyone is mentioning as part of the likely next Government.
There is an essay much longer than this to be written about the terrible problems with Ireland’s electoral system, but the biggest one is this: it actually incentivises opposition and punishes radical thinking. Because every voter has not just one vote, but a whole list of preferences, the safest thing for parties to do is to huddle around a consensus position, and hope for number two and three votes. If you try anything too new, or too dangerous, you don’t just lose first preferences, but second and third preferences as well. Because we have coalitions all the time, every interesting idea gets ditched in favour of compromise. All the incentives are to play it safe – and safe is opposition.
And so, now, in 2020, we’re the country that nobody wants to run. And that’s ironic, because after four years of sneering at our nearest neighbour, Britain has politicians on both sides of the aisle brimming with ideas and radicalism and vision for their country, and Ireland has a Dáil full of people scared to try anything. Voters can blame themselves, or the system. And come on – we’re never to blame, are we?