How this General Election could accidentally help to fix our political system

polling stationThis General Election could have one of two long-term benefits for Irish politics, in the era of the incredible shrinking ‘two-and-a-half-party’ parties.

The two most credible outcomes seem to be (a) a Fine Gael Fianna Fail Coalition, or (b) a minority Government, led by either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail, perhaps in Coalition with some smaller parties and independents, but not enough of them to form an overall majority.

On the one hand, a Fine Gael Fianna Fail Coalition would end the artificial division between two broadly populist and pragmatic parties that evolved from which sides their ancestors fought on in the civil war.

We might then see the start of a new ideology-driven politics based on left-centre-right approaches to economics, and liberal-centre-authoritarian approaches to personal rights.

On the other hand, a minority Government (or, in the long term, a series of them) could accidentally fix the power imbalance in our political system, by making the Government accountable to the Parliament instead of vice versa when passing laws.

In theory, we have a legislature, which consists of the two houses of the Oireachtas and the President, whose collective purpose is to publicly debate and pass laws; and a government, which consists of the Taoiseach and Ministers, whose purpose is to govern the country.

In practice, we have a legislature that elects the Taoiseach, then the Taoiseach appoints the Government, then the Government decides what laws are to be passed or defeated after going through a charade of pretending that the Parliament has legislative power.

In effect, the Government prevents the Parliament from carrying out its Constitutional duty to publicly debate and pass laws. One method that the outgoing Government relied on was to close down important debates on the basis of unpublished legal opinions that certain laws would be unconstitutional, despite it being the duty of the Parliament and not the Government to balance competing Constitutional rights.

A less likely outcome of this General Election is either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail forming an overall majority without the other party, but with a large collection of smaller parties and independents. To form a stable such Coalition, Fine Gael might need up to 30 more TDs, and Fianna Fail might need up to 40 more.

Perhaps the most useful outcome, though the least likely, might be a grand Coalition of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour.

The traditional ‘two-and-a-half-party’ parties and the parish-pump independents could then continue with populist politics as usual, leaving a space for other parties and independents to build a new alternative politics based on ideology and principle.

How this General Election could accidentally help to fix our political system

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