This is an important moment in our history. It is nowhere as significant as the events of a hundred years ago but nonetheless the future of our country is being shaped.
To try to dismiss divisions of today as ‘civil war politics’ is superficial and dismissive. It misses vital differences between parties in the last nine decades. It brushes away the often dramatic changes in patterns of political support in that time and is a convenient way of refusing to engage with substantive points.
It’s also bad history.
Fianna Fáil is not a ‘civil war party’. We honour the men and women who opposed the Treaty as people who represent a tradition which has given our country many positive things, and they were central to our foundation. But Fianna Fáil was founded by people who were very specifically committed to moving on from the civil war. The programme they developed and which so rapidly won the trust of the Irish people was a radical one based on social, economic and constitutional reform.
And if Fianna Fáil was simply a ‘civil war party’ then it would never have won an election.
I do not deny the right of others to oppose or criticise us. What I will never accept is their right to dismiss 20,000 members and half a million voters as being defined only by events of nearly a century ago.
This type of superficial approach to defining our politics is a direct barrier to understanding what has really been happening in Irish politics. It is also preventing us from properly embracing a far more effective and reformed politics.
In recent years Ireland has moved from what was termed a “two and a half party system” to a genuine multi-party political system. We have a highly diverse range of parties and deputies elected to Dáil Éireann and this will continue.
We have moved from a party system similar to Britain to one which is very close to what you see throughout Europe.
The clean and simple Left/Right divide which the Left in particular has failed so spectacularly to get the Irish people to vote for in no way signifies political maturity or modernity. It is very common for there to be a range of parties who are seen as centrist but which maintain what are for them and their voters important divides.
That is the case in Ireland. If Fine Gael wishes, for tactical reasons to say that the divisions between us are small then they should first explain that to their voters who until recent days were hearing the exact opposite.
One of the things which is most striking in recent days is the number of people who have decided that we have no right to keep our word. People who in many cases have spent years claiming that Fianna Fáil is not to be trusted are now demanding at great length in every part of the media that we should abandon our promise not to form a coalition government with Fine Gael.
If we want to rebuild public trust in politics isn’t it a good place to start to end the days of “ah sure isn’t that what you do during an election”? Wouldn’t it mark a major change for the better if people started to believe that parties were committed to their major promises?
I was asked repeatedly what would I do if the only majority government which could be formed was a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government. I said we would not join such a government for a number of reasons.
First of all we have seen in recent years that strong majority governments can be arrogant, divisive and unfair.
Second I said that the policy differences between our parties are too large for them to be bridged in a programme for government which would retain popular legitimacy.
Finally I said that we need to move to a reformed political system which ends the days of dominant governments and gives every TD the right and obligation to participate in the work of the Oireachtas.
My call for a major push on parliamentary reform has thankfully been taken up and I hope that final agreements in the next few weeks will deliver an Oireachtas which is more expert and effective in its work.
Yet no reform is more important than breaking the idea that the only legitimate form of government is a solid-majority government.
In our history every time a new government make-up has been agreed it has been hailed as a radical departure and a new type of partnership. It’s never been true. The only real change has been in who holds the power not how they use it.
And if we learned anything from the last few decades surely it is that we need to change the way we govern our country.
The insistence on a majority or nothing is a very Westminster-focused belief and completely out of step with countries similar to Ireland which have proportional representation and multi-party systems.
Minority governments can work if people are willing to try – and they represent a much truer reflection of the need to change our politics than simply change titles. Three out of the four Scandinavian countries currently have minority governments. They are getting on with their business in stable, successful democracies.
Studies have shown that these types of government can actually deliver real improvements. One of the most important is that parliament becomes a place where all and not just some of the people’s representatives get to play a role.
Yes there must be security that government can do its core business – but there is absolutely no need to have a situation where government has the first, last and only word on every matter.
Finding a new way of reconstructing an old model of governing will simply represent carrying on and once again failing to deliver change.
We are offering a major compromise. We are not refusing to change. We will agree to a process which can allow a government to be formed and for that government to have reasonable security based on a fully transparent framework.
The greatest achievements of our country have come from responding to genuinely radical changes. The best way of responding to radical change in our politics is to be willing to change how we govern and not just shuffle the pack in a new way.