A House Divided

Cahal Sweeney sets out a strong case for a minority government


John Adams once wrote “one worthless man is called a disgrace, two are called a law firm and three or more become a legislature.” By God, if he could see this legislature. The Irish political establishment has time and again failed to adhere to the mandate it was elected to supposedly carry out, from the freezing of student fees, to lack of increase in taxes, to the banking enquiries, to greater opacity in the Dáil.

Fine Gael’s five point plan (remember that thing?) from the 2011 election was quietly let die by early 2013 at the latest. To add insult to injury, the outgoing Fine Gael and Labour government, choosing to ignore the advice of anybody with half a brain, ran a re-election campaign on perhaps the most patronising slogan in parliamentary history, and were dumbfounded when they realised that their stamping ground had been yanked out from under their feet.

Horror of horrors, there was no guarantee that the Fine Gael – Fianna Fail cartel (with Labour tagging along behind) would regain power, partly due to running on the promise of a continuation of the largely invisible recovery. It was also partly due to the five years’ worth of unfounded reassurance, the five years’ of unsolicited bribes, the five years’ of talk not translating into action. The cheap scare tactics at the end simply guaranteed the already inevitable. Since the farce of an election, there has been talk of a Grand Coalition between all parties (dropped like hot coals), of the two Civil War parties finally shelving their imaginary differences and going in together, or a minority government. Out of those three options, the latter was raised last and as a desperate last resort. 

Fear of a Minority Government

It is worth questioning why the idea of a minority government is avoided like the plague. Words like “instability”, “government collapse” and “hung Dáil” are thrown around as synonyms for the apocalypse. The mere idea of a government not being able to shove through legislation as it pleases seems to grate with the establishment. Yet we have to question why this is the case. Other countries, in Europe and elsewhere, cope tremendously with instability. Belgium has been chugging along with a caretaker government for over a year, for instance. Spain possesses a cabinet but has an unusual delegation of powers to the various regions in proportion to various criteria.

The greatest example of a system which positively revels in instability is the United States. The check and balance system within the US was explicitly designed to ensure that the government was weak. That it was unstable. That it had to tap into the will of the majority in order to make a decision. And, contrary to intuition, it has often been the case that when the United States has been extremely unstable, it has actually been at its best. The Civil Rights Movement, the New Deal, the Environmental Protection Agency – all came out of fragmented and deeply divided administrations.

On the other hand, stability has often led to greater chaos down the road in the US. Right now, for instance, the Republicans control both Houses of Congress and originally had seventeen presidential hopefuls running. The candidates in every debate have agreed on just about everything and thus fell into blame, insults, thinly veiled racism, and even clearer misogyny almost immediately. The GOP is now looking at the first brokered convention since 1976 with profoundly anti-establishment candidates. A remarkable parallel with the current government vacuum here.

The real reason that a minority government is such taboo is that politicians are scared. They are afraid that bad stuff will happen to them or their party if they step up to the plate as a minority. They are terrified of either the general population or another party exercising their democratic right to block them. In short, they are afraid of you, me, and all of the other ordinary people in this country.

Looking past the propaganda about how this would be the end of the Irish nation and other tripe, I would say that this is fantastic! The entire point of a proportional representation system is that all views, however minute, are represented, that everything and anything can be brought to the table. Even if it gets shot down by a huge majority, it at least is permitted a voice. A minority government would be the first time this was actually the case in Ireland.

Dangerous Majoritarian Reality

Through the Orwellian whip system, through the bizarre privilege for the Taoiseach to set the business in the Dáil instead of the Ceann Comhairle, through state funding being refused to any party garnering below 2% of the popular vote, through the necessity of seven seats for speaking rights, our political system has been steadily making itself dangerously majoritarian. It throws mud on the idea of representation for all. A majority government or coalition in this country can put whatever scribbles it likes through the legislature without so much as the courtesy of an open debate and a free vote. This is despicable.

And it is this despicable thing which every party leader is afraid of losing. A minority government would ensure that there was general approval for a measure before it could be passed. It would force parties to negotiate and compromise and rely on support continuously, rather than once every five years to set up the next dictatorship. It could help bring an end to the petty Civil War politics which have irked this state since 1921.

It would prevent TDs being made to vote against their conscience or, indeed, simple knowledge because no longer would the government have an incentive to coerce everyone in their party into line. It would allow TDs to actually represent the will of their constituents, rather than the nefarious party line they are forced to succumb to. Above all else, the right of the majority would switch to preventing poisonous legislation as opposed to ramming it through. It would be more democratic, more transparent and far more cooperative in nature.

There are those who say that stability is a must for government. They say that you need to be able to pass legislation as the government. Some would even go as far as to say that it is the right of a government to have unwavering control over the legislature. I say these are lies; utterly filthy lies through and through. It is the right of the government to introduce legislation. It is the right of everyone else to say that they don’t want it, and not just every five years. If the pitiful mess this state has been left in is the best stability can bring, I say move to minority government now. Even if it doesn’t work, we sure as hell won’t be any worse off than we already are.