Derek Mooney: They Should Be In It Together


From top: Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald at a General Election 2020 Leaders’ debate; Derek Mooney

In 1945, just as the Second World War was ending, Britain faced a general election. Would post-war Britain be shaped by the Conservatives under Winston Churchill or by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, a partner in the war time unity government.

The choice was clear, but the voters had no doubt who they wanted. They resoundingly rejected Churchill, the man who had led Britain to a victory that had sometimes seemed uncertain and opted instead for Attlee, the understated but progressive social reformer.

While historians offer several reasons for Churchill’s defeat, they all boil down to voters seeing that a good wartime leader does not necessarily make a good peace time leader.

The skills (and policies) required to lead a country through a time of crisis and external threat are not the ones you need when you are trying to rebuild after the crisis. And vice-versa.

It is a simple point that has been missed by the why national/unity government is a bad idea commentary of the last few weeks.

Rather than critically analysing the options facing us, most just repeat the mantra that national/unity government can’t work, shouldn’t work and mustn’t work.

The problem is that their analysis is based on a false premise, namely that we take a far from clear election result – from before the Coronavirus changed our lives – and extrapolate it into a coherent government for five years.

We cannot say, with any certainty, will happen in four-months’ time, so why do we suppose we can plan effectively now for what will happen in 4 years?

What we need is to have a stable and secure government in place for the next eighteen months (or, even perhaps two years) to take us through this crisis and get us out safely on the other side.

When that is done, we can see what damage we have sustained, assess the costs, see the state of the world around us and commence the process of not just rebuilding, but building anew.

We could then have an election in late 2021 or early 2022 with all the parties and groups offering policies and ideas informed by the time they had spent in government tackling the crisis.

I do believe a national/unity government makes sense. It is a view strengthened by the likelihood that the current Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael led process is going nowhere.

It may take a few more weeks for the two main parties to see this, but when they do they will be left with two options: admit that they cannot agree a government and go back to the voters, at a time when it is safe to run an election, or look at the one remaining untried option.

As the fictional Sherlock Holmes put it:

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

It is simple logic.

I do understand that national/unity government is a bit of a clunky description and that one person’s idea of what constitutes a national government is not another one’s. What I am talking about here is a government comprising of all the Dáil parties who wish to participate.

No party is compelled to join, each can decide to stay out. But equally, no party can veto the involvement of another, nor can it veto the establishment of the government itself.

That means Sinn Féin can join the government, but it cannot place conditions on its involvement. It cannot say that it will only go into government if Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are excluded.

The same applies to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens and any other parties or Independents who wish to join. No vetoes. People can exclude themselves; they cannot exclude others.

Finding out who wishes to serve could be done by indicative votes in the Dáil. Remember when we urged the House of Commons to resolve its issues over Brexit by indicative votes? Well, perhaps it is time for us to look at that option.

If the parties cannot agree a fair share-out of departmental responsibilities among themselves the fallback position could be their allocation by the d’Hondt process, as happens in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Once parties indicate that they wish to join, they then move quickly to agree a short and simple Program for Government with the single goal of getting the country safely through the pandemic and achieving a speedy mass vaccination programme once a safe vaccine is available. Once that is done, there is an orderly end to its mandate.

There is another model, by the way. One many would regard as simpler: a government comprising just the three main parties: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. A three-way split with each party having five places at Cabinet.

Either one works for me, once it can be put speedily in place.

In normal times, I would be implacably opposed to Sinn Féin’s participation in government. But these are not normal times. I do not retract or disavow any of the criticisms I have made of Sinn Féin here, or elsewhere, over the past few years.

I do not have to change my views on Sinn Féin, but I can see that voters have. I may disagree with what they have decided. I may resent Sinn Féin’s support being broadly equal to that of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but to try and ignore that reality in the face of this challenge is simply churlish.

Speaking of me criticising people and questioning policies, this week’s Phoenix magazine accurately quotes me as attacking the joint framework document. I am very critical of it. Yes, there are some good things in it, such as the childcare proposals and the education and research opportunities, but its biggest problem are the things not in it.

How can you spend four weeks in policy talks in the middle of a pandemic and not include, in the resulting document, any consideration of what happens if we are faced with a second Covid-19 wave?

Surely that is item one on the agenda for any incoming government whether it is for 6 months, 18 months or five years?

There are many other things missing as well. There is nothing on the changing nature of work, particularly growing issues with the gig economy and bogus self-employment.

Neither is there any mention of cybersecurity, an issue I raised here several times, as I highlighted the paucity of our national cyber defence.

There will be a great deal more online commerce and remote working, especially from home, in post-pandemic Ireland yet we remain one of the least well defended countries in terms of cybersecurity.

Our national infrastructure, including our hospital infrastructure, is a sitting duck. Why did no one in the two parties think to mention this key issue, even once?

Just as irresponsible is the insipid reference – I cannot in good faith call it a commitment – to national defence and the defence forces – the organisation to whom I believe primary responsibility for cybersecurity should be given.

So, what happens now?

As I said earlier, I think the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats will not want to be seen as dismissing the framework out of hand and will engage genuinely with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael negotiating teams over the next week or two to see if there is a basis for moving to forwards. So will the various groupings of independents.

But I do not see the process progressing beyond that.

I simply cannot see what is in it for any of the smaller parties to jump on board, especially when some sources are saying that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are virtually decided on which departments they will take, keeping three cordoned off for a third party.

What, no room for a fourth party, or even an Independent minister? Not to mention the suggestion that Martin and Varadkar have agreed on a rotating Taoiseach and beefed-up office of the Tánaiste.

So, it looks like Sherlock Martin and Dr Varadkar will spend the next few weeks exhausting every other impossibility before realising that the last remaining option, they one they rejected two months ago, is the only viable one.

Either that or it is a second election.

While a second election is both fair and inherently democratic, it is still an admission, by all parties, of failure.

The alternative is an opportunity for politicians to show voters, particularly the newer generation of voters, that for all its faults and failings, politics ultimately works.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


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14 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: They Should Be In It Together

  1. Scundered

    SF would never cooperate, they are a different animal, look at the toxic mess they have contributed to in the north resulting in 3 years of doing nothing whatsoever yet getting paid for it, is that ever acceptable? The politics of fear is not what the people of Ireland need no matter how attractive the packaging looks.

    1. paul

      one could say similar about the mess FG/FF have made down here.

      or is the mess you know preferable rather than the mess you don’t?

    2. :-Joe

      F-f/g.. IS the politics of fear… Fear of the unknown or alternative option.
      Fear of the other, xenophobia, racism, classism…
      Fear of becoming houseless because look how they get fairly treated..

      The most pervasive fear in the deepest part of your subconcious mind. So great, that you get up even earlier and work even harder for even less than before of your fair share in the benefits… 99.9% of which go the wrong way to the tiniest minority of individuals. AKA. The wealthy elite class in any society.

      You have been programmed to think about it in reverse and you don’t or won’t let yourself even realise it…

      Do us all a favour and snap out of your delusional thinking..


      1. Scundered

        Joe I am old enough to know their politics of fear, in fact my earliest memory is watching a plume of smoke rise from a distant car bomb, and wondering if my parents were still alive. On another occasion a bomb blew off part of my grandmother’s roof. Times change thankfully, but it was their cohorts who carried that out, being scared of radical economic changes is not real fear in my mind. It’s just the modern generation have no idea of what that party really done to people, ordinary innocent people, that at one point in time they thought it was ok to do that, so forgive me if I don’t suck up the populist sales pitch.

        1. paul

          And a fair few years back I turned a corner in my home town to see the police pull a sheet over the decapitated corpse of a man who killed himself because he lost his job and house during the last recession. A lot of that blame is placed on Fianna Fail and that mans family was probably destroyed by such a thing. A lot of the people who are voting Sinn Fein were alive during the events you list above and they are living through the mess Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have made of the present. Nothing is new, vote with your head and not your history.

          1. Scundered

            So why do you bring up an historic event affecting you if you think history is irrelevant? Besides the fact that the scenario you mention was still ultimately a personal choice, but imagine hiring an employee and thinking their history is not important.

            I arrived at my viewpoint precisely from using my head, track records are important, and poor economic decisions will never be as bad as deliberately killing people.

  2. Truth in the News

    The strategy of denying SF a right to take part in an admistration derives from a sectarian
    ethos promoted for generations by elements of the orange order and unionism, the got
    away with until they were confronted and the first cave in was Paisley and it’s time that
    Varadkar and Martin did likewise

    1. Cian

      SF have consistently opted out of taking part in an administration. e.g. Westminister (albeit they are voted in to not go), see the last 3 years in Stormont.

  3. :-Joe

    Fair play by derek, more true to form pr spin nonsense for the good of F-f/g and the neo-liberal economic elites.

    We need another proper election asap and pseudo pr spin derek’s F-f/g friends should get the f*** out of the way of building a real democracy and ending this farce of a corrupt duopoly.

    Anything else is pointless and regressive.


    1. A Person

      You cannot criticise the shinners on here. They have “no” history of violence. Even their long time president has not a member of the Ra. Why is Michelle O’Neill included in every debate even though she was not elected in my country? Nobody is denying SF a chance to form a govt here. Just go do it. Lead for a change instead of bs online debates where you can only dread up a handful of creditable ministers. I still love Martin’s description of Mary Lou – faux (that means false) outrage. I also love the call for another election, democracy etc.. SF cannot form a govt – why – they did not get the numbers? That is called democracy. You can’t bully everyone here.

  4. gringo

    As you say, there are many things missing from the framework document, and for good reason. The gig economy and bogus self-employment problems could be dealt with in a week if FFG considered them to be problems, which they don”t , cos thats what IBEC want. Casual labour, with the taxpayer picking up the tab at the end of it all. Every screwup that afflicts this state can be traced back to FFG, which is why it is imperative that outsiders like the Shinners cannot get a good look at the entrails of our dodgy little statelet.

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