From the voters’ perspective, this election has taken a turn for the worse. Unpredictability has morphed into a bizarre situation whereby Fine Gael and Fianna Fail appear to be denying or studiously avoiding the preference of the people. In a blizzard of polls, despite all the fracturing, the centre is holding by way of support for these two conservative parties. Yet, an alliance between them is so repugnant to both parties that it is declared to be off the menu.
Quite apart from arrogance, it is unhelpful to voters pondering options. After all, with a return to government in its current form now looking impossible, people are confused and increasingly frustrated by the prospect of a hung Dail or a crazy patchwork of small parties and independents.
The outgoing government was essentially a national government of crisis management. Although ideologically incompatible they did the job. Contrary to the FG slogan about “keeping the recovery going” people have concluded we are not out of the woods yet and at the mercy of unpredictable global shocks. The majority of the electorate is more cautious than all the parties and seem to be shifting herd-like to the stability of the centre. Those with Fianna Fail allegiance are back with the mothership. Of the leaders, Micheál Martin has performed best, as reflected in the support for Fianna Fail up several points to 23%.
People are recoiling from giveaways and unimpressed by false pledges. With such high level of distrust in mainstream politicians, many are leaning to independents. The unrelenting rise of the independents and small parties at 28% nationally and 41% in Dublin is a shock finding in the final Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll of the campaign.
This is a worrying trend. We need a stable, experienced administration to govern for the next five years to get back on our feet and see the recovery through, bearing in mind volatility in global markets, a possible Brexit, and a migrant crisis in Europe.
Voting in a large number of independents does not contribute to stability, quite the opposite. For a government to be dependent on a large number of independents is a tyranny, unless they are a few solid types who remain “bought”. If FG and Labour were to form a government they would need at least 12 independents and maybe more. An unworkable prospect.
As Joan Burton correctly pointed out, keeping independents on side requires a profligacy in satisfying their every constituency whim. I remember the late Seamus Brennan’s chore of “minding” the four independents in the 1997/2002 government. God knows how much it cost the taxpayer to fund often unnecessary pet projects demanded by them and there is no transparency or accountability in such “deals”.
It is true that some independent TDs (and those from the smaller parties) are effective parliamentarians, raising legitimate issues often with great courage: people like Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Catherine Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett, to name a few. By their very nature, and political persuasion, they are protesters and activists, happier and more effective on the opposition benches. A strong Opposition is really important. Indeed a weak Opposition is a dangerous thing in a democracy, allowing poor governance to go unnoticed.
So with a couple of days to go, sentiment probably will harden. The final leaders’ debate on TV on Tuesday night will be crucial. Those drifting towards independents and undecideds may shift one way or the other. All agree the country needs a stable government for the next five years. In each of the last general elections there have been late and decisive swings. The two big parties, now neck and neck, owe it to the electorate not to play games. Both should be honest and indicate that they will respect the people’s preference however it falls. Time to bury the hatchet, move from fixed positions and put country before party.
Liz O’Donnell is a former Progressive Democrats politician and minister of state, who represented Dublin South as a TD from 1992 to 2007.