By Ray O’Hanlon
Old politicians never die, they only end up agreeing with each other.
That certainly was the case last week when two veterans of Irish political life, former taoisigh Garret FitzGerald and Albert Reynolds, shared a podium in New York and briefed an attentive audience on the mysteries of the Irish political system in the light of the upcoming general election.
FitzGerald is a decade retired from active politics and Reynolds is poised to bid adieu to politics when the 38th D_il winds up its affairs.
As such, some of the old fire that the two might once have exchanged was absent from the “Election Forum” sponsored by the Ireland-U.S. Council for Commerce and Industry.
That didn’t mean the complete absence from the room of little digs.
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Still, none was so bold as to distract from a briefing on a range of issues, including the shape of the next Irish government and the electoral prospects for Sinn FTin.
Former Fianna F_il leader Reynolds was prepared to give Sinn FTin a better chance than the latest opinion poll.
The poll predicted that one of Sinn FTin’s strongest candidates, Sean Crowe, would fail in his bid to win a D_il seat in Dublin Southwest, one of 42 constituencies that make up the Republic’s electoral map.
Reynolds, who spoke first after the drawing of lots, told the gathering at a private club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that the upcoming election would witness the first time that Sinn FTin placed itself before Irish voters with “a serious number of candidates.”
Reynolds said he is particularly interested to see how Sinn FTin fares since it was he, as taoiseach in 1994, who “brought them in to the system” a week after the first IRA cease-fire.
“I was confident they were for real,” Reynolds said while offering his firm belief that there is now such a well-rooted peace process that there is “no going back” for the Gerry Adams-led party.
Reynolds pointed to the considerable speculation over the likely tally of seats Sinn FTin would win at the polls.
The party presently has one seat in the 166-seat D_il, the lower house of the bicameral Irish parliament, the Oireachtas.
Reynolds is wary of opinion polls and believes Sinn FTin will actually take a seat in Dublin Southwest.
Reynolds has said little over the last five years in the D_il. Indeed, he has spoken on the record for a mere 15 minutes.
Not that he had nothing to say. But it is the tradition in Irish politics for former prime ministers to avoid taking an active vocal role in parliamentary proceedings.
So the crowd at the club got value for money. Reynolds was due to speak for 15 minutes but actually spoke for a period that matched both his allotted time and the entire length of his D_il utterances since 1997.
Reynolds was first elected to the D_il in 1977 and has had ample time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Irish electoral system.
The proportional representation method as it currently functioned is a “bad system,” he said. It led to instability, three elections in 18 months in the early 1980s being an example.
Reynolds is of the view that the majority of the 166 TDs in the D_il have been reduced to the role of “messenger boys.”
He prefers the idea of single-seat constituencies — this as opposed to the current multiple-seat arrangement in which candidates vie for clutches of seats in three, four and five seaters.
“Dev tried to change [the P.R. system] a couple of times and the people said no,” Reynolds said in reference to Fianna F_il’s founder, Eamon de Valera.
Reynolds admitted that the era of single-party government in Irish politics has probably passed forever. Where once voters went to the polls with a clear choice of one party over the other, now it is simply a matter of what shape the next coalition government will take.
This, Reynolds said, has undoubtedly taken some interest out of elections. He is concerned over “the drastic drop” in the number of people coming out to vote as a result.
Reynolds, however, said he is prepared for surprises in the upcoming vote. He isn’t sure how Sinn FTin will do, although it appears certain that the party will increase its number of seats, even though Northern Ireland will not be an election issue.
Fianna F_il’s former coalition partner, Labor, looks well placed to gain a few seats, Reynolds said. His own party is set for a “strong return,” although there are not too many constituencies where Fianna F_il can expect to pick up extra seats.
His party’s arch-rival, at least in more turbulent times, Fine Gael, is a party with uncertain prospects, not least because of leadership uncertainties, Reynolds said.
The likely post-election outcome, Reynolds believes, would be a coalition of Fianna F_il and either the Progressive Democrats — a replay of the current government — or a combination of Fianna F_il and Labor, a throwback to his own time as taoiseach.
Such predictability, he warned, might indeed lead to a decreased voter turnout “because people see the deals being done after the election. People are feeling disenfranchised,” Reynolds said.
FitzGerald, who had two stints as taoiseach in the 1980s, takes a more sanguine view of the three-election spree in the early part of that decade because, as he reminded his former rival to some laughter in the room, “I won two of them.”
FitzGerald has been retired from active politics for a decade, but evidently not from active political analysis.
In his trademark rapid-fire delivery, FitzGerald said that “as usual I agree with all Albert said.”
Then again, there were things that Reynolds had not said, particularly with regard to Sinn FTin, which, in FitzGerald’s eyes, are by far and away the enfant terrible of Irish politics.
That he agreed with Reynolds in disliking the present voting system was made plain by the former taoiseach.
He is all for single-seat constituencies, although, he said, such a system would have to be set up in a way that prevents one party from winning an “inordinate number of seats.”
FitzGerald is as transfixed by the mysteries of proportional representation as his erstwhile rival. He explained that when he last ran for election, in 1989, he spent the campaign asking voters in his Dublin constituency not to vote for him but for his party colleague.
Of course, being so nice about things, FitzGerald received a deluge of votes, both first preferences and transfers, and both he and his Fine Gael running mate secured seats.
FitzGerald is famous for his grasp of statistics. A favorite hobby of his in years past was memorizing European train timetables. And as legend would have it, all of them.
Voter turnout up until the 1990s had averaged between 73 and 76 percent, he said. During the ’90s, this had fallen to 65 percent.
“And if we reach 60 percent this time we’ll be doing well,” he said.
Like Reynolds, FitzGerald is unhappy with a situation in which people feel they can no longer choose a government but merely wait for the parties to coalesce after the election.
FitzGerald delivered a pocket-sized assessment of the smaller parties, including Sinn FTin.
He does not disguise his dislike for Sinn FTin, a party with which his father, Desmond FitzGerald, would have been on friendlier terms, given his role as an IRB member who fought in the GPO in 1916.
But such hostility is merely an example in miniature of the tangled family tree of 20th century Irish politics. Both Fianna F_il and Fine Gael are rooted in the Sinn FTin party that burst upon the Irish political scene almost 100 years ago.
FitzGerald referred to Sinn FTin in his delivery as “they.” He was clearly making no distinction between Sinn FTin the political party poised for greater D_il participation, and the Provisional IRA.
“They,” he said, had “murdered a dozen of our guards [police] and one of our senators.”
Sinn FTin had not been a popular party in the South, although that changed once violence had been abandoned. Young people are now inclined to vote for them, FitzGerald acknowledged.
But the number of votes that Sinn FTin could expect in the upcoming election is probably now falling, he continued. This is because the larger parties are now taking a more critical line and speaking out.
“It looks as if they might not do as well as earlier thought,” FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald laid particular emphasis in his delivery on the state of Ireland’s public finances, long a favorite subject.
They are in far worse shape than present government assessments, he said. Revenue predictions are “way off” while expenditure is “rocketing ahead.”
For a minute it was if FitzGerald was back on the stump, campaigning to lead his country once again.
So bad is this state of affairs, said FitzGerald, that he almost hopes Fine Gael doesn’t get elected.
“Fine Gael gets elected when Fianna F_il makes a mess of things,” he said. “The situation is really quite grave.”
Reynolds was seemingly unperturbed by FitzGerald’s swipe and indeed the former Fine Gael leader seemed less than certain that Fine Gael would end up in government at all.
The scenario he is certain will not follow next month’s election is a Fianna Fail/Sinn FTin coalition.
“The one thing nobody wants is that,” FitzGerald said firmly.