I sat watching the exit polls from General Election 2020 on a rainy night in Dublin on the 8th of February. I had spent the previous weeks campaigning night and day, getting up at crazy hours to canvas all over Ireland and loved every minute of it. I had, however, unfortunately watched Fine Gael's poll numbers slide beaten down by an unprecedented Sinn Fein surge.
So when the exit poll predicted 22% for Sinn Féin (SF) Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) in a three-way tie I was relieved. It was a respectful showing one that would guarantee us a strong opposition and it was now expected that Sinn Féin would form the broad left coalition government they had always craved.
Leo Varadkar stated that if “Fine Gael has to do its duty and lead the Opposition we’ll do that”. Many in the party deep down relished the opportunity to regroup in opposition, it had been a long nine years in government with a large amount of time spent steering Ireland back from the brink of financial ruin and getting the country back to work.
Despite Sinn Féin's historic victory, the harsh realities of electoral arithmetic meant forming this coalition of change would near be impossible without one of the civil war parties. As Pat Leahy put it the plans for a Sinn Féin-led government were “Simple to describe complex to deliver”.
Fine Gael had outright rejected a coalition with Sinn Féin; the two party’s DNA was simply incompatible. There were a few flirtatious glances by certain members of Fianna Fáil but these were quickly shot down by the leadership of the party.
Irish politics was at a stalemate, however. Politics and indeed life as we knew it was changed forever when Leo Varadkar in mid-march stood on the steps of Blair House in Washington DC announcing the closure of schools which was the first in several measures bringing Ireland into total lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Within the turbulence of Covid-19, it took until early may until formal negotiations for the programme for government began between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
After numerous weeks of negotiations, the Programme for Government (PfG) was finalised in mid-July. Party WhatsApp groups buzzed with the pdf of the document. Journalists and politicos scrambled to which sections interested them most. I was immediately drawn to the ‘Shared Island’ section of the document. It is disappointing to see so many Green members in Northern Ireland reject the PfG as it is one of the most comprehensive PfGs in the history of the state that has a direct focus and commitment on a unique and ambitious ‘shared island’ approach.
As people began to explore the PfG became broken down into 3 key areas of debate:
I will not pretend Fine Gael has done enough on climate action. While there have been successes it ultimately has not been enough and not implemented with the required urgency.
There is no denying that this document would put this government on course to be the greenest in the history of the state, a low bar of course. However, the potential to achieve so much in terms of climate action is unprecedented. It is too good of an opportunity to miss. The notion in some circles of the Green Party that a better deal can be negotiated is a fallacy as Philippe Lamberts, the Belgian MEP who is co-president of the European Greens/EFA group, stated “Let me put it this way, it looked like it was drafted by Greens and then amended by others. Normally it’s the other way around.”
The one standout theme of climate emergency is that it is simply that an emergency. An emergency that can only be dealt with through concrete action within Government. That action surely needs to happen now, not next year, or in five years time.
There have been several claims that the PfG is a fiscally conservative document, while at the same time Sinn Féin has criticised the PfG for stealing their policies. The answer is it is none of these but rather a progressive centre-led economic document focusing on an investment-led recovery, outlined in a ‘new social contract’ with a focus on a safety net for those affected by COVID 19 and the establishment of a commission to examines the introduction of a universal basic income.
The simple fact is that if this document was presented without party labels it could easily be praised by those on the left and the centre as progressive and transformative. As Eamon Ryan described it is a “left-wing document”.
Socially the PfG is transformative in numerous areas. I am proud of Fine Gael's record of legislating for social reform alongside coalition partners and opposition parties in the Marriage Equality, Repeal and Divorce referendums. Yet this document allows the next government to go further in the pursuit of social justice. Its enhanced protections of LGBTQI+, traveller community and disability rights is of vital importance. Notably the PfG outlines the intention to abolish direct provision and move towards ‘accommodation for asylum seekers that has the protection and promotion of human rights at its core’.
It is not surprising that all youth wings (Ogra FF, Young Fine Gael and Young Greens) have outright rejected the coalition. Youth wings can afford to be idealistic but this PfG and the need for a government in these times has ramifications far beyond the college campus.
This PfG serves all parties in some way but ultimately serves the country. To those Greens that reject this PfG; what is the alternative? Where is the joy in saying ‘I told you so’ when you failed to take the chance to directly influence government policy during a climate emergency?
To those in my party who fear the decimation of rural Ireland at the hands of the Greens, it is rural communities and farmers who are set to lose most due to climate breakdown; rural Ireland can become part of the solution to climate breakdown and to engage with the Greens in Government allows us to make this a reality. Fine Gael has a long record of putting country before party. It is part of who we are as a party. It is what defines us on the Irish political landscape, we go into government take the tough decisions as we understand that at the core of politics is public service. As Michael Collins stated: “We have to learn that freedom imposes responsibilities.”
What this PfG does allow us to do is compromise on issues and to balance interest through a stable government that is so desperately needed by Ireland at the moment. It's not perfect, far from it, but we must bear in mind ‘Don't let perfection be the enemy of good’.
Conor McArdle is a 22 year old Masters Student studying for an LLM in Human Rights Law. He is Secretary of QUB Young Fine Gael and a member of the European Youth Parliament.