What About Stable Opposition?

In the dying days of the Fianna Fáil/Green executive, John Gormley received the following text from Mary Harney. “Your worst day in government is better than your best day in opposition”, were the words of comfort from his ministerial colleague.

This attitude is reminiscent of a recent interview with Alan “power is a drug” Kelly but also underlines a wider perception that warps Irish politics.


A familiar refrain throughout the last five years and indeed every other election cycle is the emphasis on stable government. All sorts doom is promised should voters neglect to return the right sort of people in sufficient numbers.

Think responsibly. Vote with your head not your with heart.

Accept the reality.

Ministers like Brendan Howlin for example are brimming with dire and largely false warnings about the turmoil and chaos that has befallen our neighbours in the Mediterranean. Germany, that paradigm of responsibility and prudence is currently ruled by a grand coalition. Stability is found one way or another.

It is sort of laughable, really. That the fabric of order and civilisation hangs in the balance if we do not elect dozens and dozens of silent, powerless backbenchers.

Following the last election in 2011, Fianna Fáil were shell shocked. For at least two years and speaking from experience, they took every opportunity to remind us that the new government had a near unprecedented majority and could act however they wished. How the coalition used and abused that power should impress on you the reality of “stable government”.

It is a reflection of just how much contempt parliament and real democracy is held that so little importance and attention is attached to opposition. Party politics treats the opposite benches as waiting room or punishment. There can be no pride or dedication in a job you can’t wait to get out of.

The claim that opposition is powerless should ring alarm bells though. No half-truth is repeated this often without serving existing power, in this case inculcating an all too convenient sense of helplessness. You are much quicker to resign yourself when told there is not much you can do.

As it turned out, we were fortunate that the 31st Dáil was something of a golden term for opposition politics. A dozen or so deputies excelled in holding not just government but the state itself to account. It is no coincidence that much of the established norms were flouted by new and independent TDs.

For most of the previous five years, Clare Daly, an independent socialist, succeeded in keeping abortion on the mainstream Irish political agenda. That was remarkable given the dread this issue strikes into the grey and male hearts of Leinster House.

Catherine Murphy, another independent woman, plunged parliament, High Court, media and one of the world’s richest men into crisis. She deserves credit alone for exposing Finance Minister Michael Noonan, who until then had been treated as some sort of infallible buddha-like figure.

Like Muprhy, Mick Wallace has excavated the shallow grave of our toxic banking legacy exposing as yet unresolved mysteries in NAMA. Wallace, Ming Flanagan, Joan Collins and Daly took on perhaps the country’s most well protected institution, An Garda Siochana, and won no small victories. Months banging on the door before the penalty points and all manner of garda malfeasance began to pour out.

These are just a few examples but these are events that dominated the 31st Dáil and news cycle. A handful of opposition TDs with no party support and even fewer friends in high places succeeded in holding a mirror to how this society really operates. None of this could have been accomplished without their election in 2011. At key moments, it was their standing and powers as members of Dáil Éireann that allowed them to accomplish the work.

Fianna Fáil were adrift with little interest in rocking a boat they themselves have built. They provided absolutely no challenge apart from occasional postures intent on benefiting only themselves.

Sinn Féin have so far proved not quite the threat newspapers would you believe and were largely ineffective, given the potential. Several deputies preformed well and on a fairly consistent basis but in truth, there are few victories to show for five years.

They are considerably hamstrung by widespread hostility and their own past but when you think about that past, it is curious that the initiative required for bank robberies, jail breaks, arms smuggling and general ingenuity of 30 year guerilla warfare has not translated to the mundane requirements of parliamentary politics. The same appetite and creativity is lacking. While they may be gobbling up votes, their impact in holding government to account has been minimal and you get the sense they have yet to really apply themselves in that regard.

Perhaps the biggest opposition flop has been Shane Ross. Can anyone name a single contribution of worth in five years? Mattie McGrath put in a strong performance as a constant thorn in the side of Phil Hogan. Stephen Donnelly established a national profile but Ross? A few blustery speech is all, from the man who threatened to shake up Irish politics and now aims to prop up the next government.

Politicians and journalists are always quick to belittle the opposition as having little to contribute. This graph from Catherine Murphy shows 62% of all Private Members Bills from 1960-2016 were initiated in 31st Dáil. To my memory only two motions were accepted by government.


Part of this is accounted by changes in procedure introduced in the last Dáil but it is no small fact that this burst of non-executive parliamentary activity occurred when the oppositions was not dominated by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour.

Politicians and journalists are also quick to belittle the opposition as being against everything. This is a caricature but even if it was not, their much to be against. We should attach more importance to opposition, dissent and accountability. The accusation directed at Fianna Fáil in opposition is that they caused the problems while it power. The accusation directed at government is that they did little to stop it while in opposition.

The depths used by Fine Gael and Labour to deflect opposition criticism have been mind bindingly cynical however, an effective and principled oppositions will make these transparent evasions more difficult in future.

Very often the most thoughtful and righteous speeches of the 31st Dáil were delivered by an opposition politician. Very often it was the opposition who spoke for Irish society at large or those denied a voice. Very often it was an opposition politician speaking for us while the government scattered into hiding.

So think carefully on Friday. Despite parliament being denigrated by those within and outside, all seats on both sides of Dáil Éireann matter and the next term will look very different with parties breaking out of the Technical Group, hitting that magic number seven to gain parliamentary rights for themselves.

The next government will do little to change the rot that permeates. They know their job is to uphold it.  A committed and vibrant opposition, buttressed by the work each of us can do outside, is far more valuable if we are to build our own brand of stability.

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