For Rational Government, Not National Government.

24th February, 2009

Demands for a national government are now regularly heard. This is where all the main political parties come together to form a single government. In the face of the greatest economic crisis the country has ever faced, it is not difficult to understand why people feel this way.

Too often politics is seen through the prism of the Oireachtas bear-pit. It is characterised by witty put-downs and shouting matches that, at times, is at odds with the anxiety soaking our country.

Faced with political conflict on their TV screens it can come as no surprise to anyone that a desire for politicians to come together and not slug it out is felt. As an opposition politician, this is a frustrating scenario as it ignores

the one simple truth about Irish politics:- when it comes to power, the winner take it all. Over the years we have developed an adversarial political system where the party in power hoards information and power and
believes compromise is weakness. Years of majority government have produced a very strong government system at the expense of a strong parliament.

Due to this we have a situation where the greatest economic mind in the Dail, Richard Bruton, is not called upon to give any advice to his Fianna Fail counterpart. Similarly, the politician who has shown the greatest
commitment to Ireland’s artistic and cultural heritage, Michael D Higgins, is excluded from every facet of arts policy.

For these reasons, National Governments seem to make sense. But what we fail to take account of is the vital need to ensure that Government is counterbalanced by a strong and vibrant Opposition.

Given the difficulties the economy and the country now faces it would, in my view, be unthinkable that the spoils of power were simply shared out amongst the parties in the current Dail. Checks and balances would go and the forensic and forthright analysis of where the Government has gone wrong and could go right would melt away.

If we have learnt anything in recent months it is that a small group of people at the apex of banking and economic life can wield so much power and influence that they threaten the viability of the very industries they lead. Such a scenario happening with political life in Ireland would be catastrophic. The likelihood of this occurring would increase as a national unity government would lead to a weak and feeble opposition.

This is the last thing that Ireland needs now. It needs leadership and action. It does not need a monolithic coalition of the willing that will have nobody on the other side to call it to account and, if needs be, slap
it down.

Zimbabwe is another country currently looking to national governments to respond to huge challenges. For all our difficulties we are not facing death by hunger or the terror of intimidation and violence.

So where does that leave us? How do we achieve a position where the Government governs, the Opposition opposes but the strengths of both are harnessed for the good of a decidedly wobbly and fearful nation?

A new political order must be established. The Oireachtas should act more as a meeting of minds and not always as a clash of agendas.

To achieve this, a mechanism whereby every Minister meets on a monthly or even weekly basis with his or her opposite number to discuss the difficulties facing their Department, the opportunities that lie ahead and
most importantly the plans they have to deal with both.

Let Ministers of whatever political hue be required by law to share statistics, information and data with Opposition politicians so that a national dialogue can truly take place on matters of national interest.
This would avoid the dripping of revelations each day that is sapping our national morale.

Above all let the Government know a good idea when it sees one and act upon it, regardless of whether the bright spark who suggested it is wearing a green, blue or red rosette.

Since the election of Barack Obama, many people are looking to their own politicians somewhat forlornly. It’s not easy for those of us in the political game to stand beside a charismatic, good-looking orator of
unrivalled talent. Some of us know we cannot match that.

But where we can match the Obama phenomenon is in his ability to tap into the mood of the nation we have the privilege to rule and represent. By opening the doors to the corridors of power and letting Opposition voices be heard, the country could greatly benefit. By continuing to offer principled and effective Opposition, but providing honest answers to real problems, so too can opposition politicians do our bit.

It is not national government we need but rational government