It’s hard to find anyone who does not expect FF to be in opposition after the next election. And things could hardly be otherwise: when the economy is in the dire straits it is, and the major party of government has held office for 21 of the previous 23 years, it would be extraordinary if there were any chance that it might remain in power. Both FG and Labour have ruled out any possibility of coalition with FF, and it’s impossible to envisage a scenario in which FF, and a shrunken FF moreover, is not evicted from office at the next election.
But for how long will FF be in opposition? FF is not a party accustomed to spending time there. Its longest spell on the opposition benches is still the nearly six years between its foundation in May 1926 and its entry into government in March 1932. Since then, the party has never spent more than one consecutive Dáil term in opposition and the longest spell it has been out of power remains the 4 years and 4 months of the Cosgrave coalition in the mid-1970s.
In the worst case scenario, that could change completely in the years ahead. At the next election, according to all the recent polls, the party will do well to reach 50 seats. Such a crushing defeat could leave it on the outside not just for one Dáil term but for ‘a generation’, as the cliché has it (this seems to mean anything between 10 and 30 years). It will take a great deal of renewal to bring the party back to a situation where it is able to challenge seriously for its usual 70+ seats, and a fair bit of time for the public memory of its shortcomings in office to fade.
And yet, it is possible to envisage an alternative scenario in which FF’s time in exile turns out to be surprisingly short. Clearly, the next government will be a coalition between the other two main parties (whether a FG–Labour coalition or a Labour–FG coalition remains to be seen). But how durable would that government be? The economic fundamentals will remain the same, and anyone who votes for FG or Labour in the belief that a change of government will put an end to cuts, or will guarantee that future cuts are painless, will rapidly become disillusioned. The parties will not be making choices about how to distribute the fruits of growth but about how heavily the axes will fall in various areas. Thus, even a cohesive and united coalition is likely to incur unpopularity from a very early stage.
That might not matter if the coalition really was united, because then it could make decisions for the medium term and hope that the appropriate measures might restore the economy to some degree of health in five years’ time. But would such a coalition be united?
The two parties have fundamentally (one might almost say ideologically except that, as we know, Ireland is an ideology-free zone) different approaches to the current crisis. FG advocates deeper cuts in spending and few or no tax increases, Labour wants tax increases to play a significant part in reducing the deficit; FG wants spending and borrowing reduced as rapidly as possible, Labour favours further borrowing to provide stimulus to the economy, as outlined by Éamon Gilmore at the weekend. There is little doubt that Labour could not live with FG’s preferred method of dealing with the economy, and that FG could not live with Labour’s. The two parties will thus have to find a compromise, and the chances are that this middle way will not look hugely different from the approach being taken by the current government. In office, then, they might find themselves implementing much the same policies as the ones they criticised so vehemently from opposition – the difference being that FF actually believes in that set of policies whereas both FG and Labour would have some distaste for them. It might not be long before many members of both parties begin asking why they should incur such unpopularity for policies to which at bottom they do not feel any attachment.
If the will to make a government work is there then differences on details of policy may not matter, but it is not clear that either side would have that will, and recent attacks on Labour by Alan Shatter and Fergus O’Dowd in particular suggest that FG feels a degree of resentment and irritation, if not outright anger, towards its putative partner.
Thus, it is not at all far-fetched to see a scenario in which the next election – 2011, say – produces a coalition between FG and Labour (assuming for the moment that the former is the larger party, though the probability of this is declining all the time), but this government lasts for only a short time before Labour withdraws, unable to accept a particularly swingeing set of FG proposals for cutting public spending. After the ensuing – 2012 – election, a now once-again coalitionable FF, led by Brian Lenihan (personally completely untainted by the recklessness of the ‘if I have the money I spend it’ era), shorn of any other minister who might remind the public of the bad old days (Dermot Ahern, Brian Cowen, Noel Dempsey and Éamon Ó Cuív would all either be writing their memoirs or firmly relegated to the back benches), and exuding a new-found humility, comes to a coalition arrangement with Labour after the latter has driven a hard bargain. The public sector unions back the programme of the FF–Labour government as representing the least bad option, international markets display relief that there is finally political stability, and Éamon Gilmore enters the history books as the first Labour Taoiseach.