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The farcical delay in forming a government has eroded my faith in politics

The fallout from the 2016 general election has been largely incomprehensible to most citizens, and even to many devoted political watchers.

Larry Donnelly

CONFUSING. PROTRACTED. SELFISH. Embarrassing. Incoherent. Childish. Myopic.  Exasperating. Disgraceful. Ridiculous. Soul-destroying. Completely and utterly farcical.

Regrettably, this series of adjectives encapsulates my thoughts at various points during the 50 plus days since the general election was held on 26 February.

Widely forecast as the election that would deliver a seismic shock to the Irish political system and, indeed, to conventional wisdom about Irish politics, it has accomplished that and more.  The result has engendered a period dominated by outright claptrap and “inside baseball”.

The fallout from the 2016 general election has been largely incomprehensible to most citizens, and even to many devoted political watchers.

What has troubled me above all else is the extent to which the negotiations to form the next government have been conducted through the narrow prism of political self interest.

I say this as one of a very small minority who nearly always reflexively and resolutely defends politicians from the criticism they often quite unfairly are subjected to. There are precious few grounds on which to defend the action and/or inaction of our political leaders over the past month and a half, however.

They have repeatedly referenced the differing mandates they received from the electorate to justify each and every move in this torturous process of government formation. These plaintive cries deny the reality that the overall mandate given by the public is all but impossible to define.

20/04/2016. General Election 2016 - Government For Source: Sam Boal

Attempting to divine what their voters – maybe apart from the most ardent party members or supporters of individual independents – intended the next government to look like when they cast ballots for candidates at polling stations all over the country is pure folly.

Moreover, some members of the 32nd Dáil have shared their perspective that politics and government “aren’t just about numbers. They’re about implementing policies.”

This is absurd. Politics and government are ALL about numbers. The number of votes cast for candidates and the corresponding number of seats won are the clearest possible manifestation of the will of the people.

It may be glib, yet it’s true nonetheless to say that I’ve never partaken in a losing campaign (and I’ve been involved in more than a few) post mortem that revolved around shortcomings in outlining how policies would be implemented, as opposed to analysing vote totals and related strategic missteps.

It may be upsetting to idealists, but the numbers are the one thing in politics that tell the tale. Staying with the numbers, the most confounding happening of the past seven weeks or so was the swift dismissal of the sole numerical formula that works.

Mathematicians would rapidly certify that a coalition – or, perhaps more palatably put, a partnership – between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who won 94 seats (93 now) between them in the general election, is the only thing that realistically adds up.

The unwillingness of two centrist parties to form a government in 2016, when polls suggest strongly that voters discern little or no ideological difference between them and aren’t bothered about the vestiges of history, is a defeat for democratic politics.

That so much of the impasse can be attributed to a fundamentally immature and quite personal enmity between their memberships is downright sad.

20/04/2016. General Election 2016 - Government For Source: Sam Boal

Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil has covered itself in glory and each seems reticent to come to grips with its diminished standing. Fine Gael’s initial outreach to independents, who collectively occupy a breadth of the ideological spectrum and who are insufficient in number on their own to form a government with the party, was a pointless waste of time.

Fianna Fáil, admittedly hamstrung by the fact that its members vociferously oppose entering a partnership government with the “old enemy,” states that it could not assent to this arrangement because its TDs were elected to keep Fine Gael out of government.

Astonishingly and simultaneously, however, its leader and its negotiating team are prepared to “facilitate” a Fine Gael-led minority government.

It is very easy to get lost amidst this contortion and contradiction. Maintaining a handle on it all, especially when seeking to give the protagonists the benefit of the doubt, has been a herculean task for those endeavouring to keep abreast of developments.

The frustration of the journalists who spend most of their days and nights in and around Leinster House, in particular, seems palpable.

These journalists’ current dispatches indicate that the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil negotiators, ensconced in meeting rooms in Trinity College Dublin, are close to agreeing upon terms for a minority government. TDs assure us that minority governments work in Scandinavia, in New Zealand, in Canada and elsewhere.

8873 Election Talks Source: Sam Boal

But are Ireland’s political culture and constitutional framework as amenable? I think not. Myriad questions still abound. How detailed an agreement will underpin a minority government? Which independents will sign on, and will they play a constructive role?

What part might the smaller parties play? Will a minority government be stable enough to square up adequately to the significant challenges facing this country in the near future? How long can it last?

Some claim that, because of all these unanswered or unanswerable questions – as well as trenchant disagreement about Irish Water – there will be another general election in short order.

A few continue to believe that the prospect of another general election may put a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil partnership back on the table.

In truth, who knows – about any of this? We are where we are. An awful saying befits an awful situation. Those elected deputies of the 32nd Dáil, who we placed our sacred trust in on 26 February and who have since brought us here, don’t deserve any medals.

Larry Donnelly is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a regular media commentator on US and Irish politics, current affairs and law. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryPDonnelly.

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