Irish Politics In Mid-Winter

THE general election in Ireland took place on Nov. 25, as well as three referendums on abortion. Since that time politics has gone into hibernation while the electorate's decisions are slept on by the politicians. But things are happening in fitful and sometimes dramatic dreams.

A new government is likely by Jan. 12. But it means the bringing together of disparate groups, not used to getting along. They may be about to find a majority, but given the cold, don't bet your shirt.

Commentators announced that Ireland had at last escaped into Europe and out of the past. Irish President Mary Robinson made great news when she visited Somalia. Ms. Robinson was elected to the largely ceremonial post of president in 1990, the first independent holder of the position. Her report to the UN prompted plaudits from all over. Portuguese newspapers spoke of her moral influence as Robinsonismo.

But has anything actually changed? The great Fianna Fail (Republican Party) majority iceberg is melting. Founded by Eamon De Valera in the 1920s, Fianna Fail saw itself as the natural party of government. So too did the nation, however reluctantly. Then, last November, the party lost 10 seats while the left-wing opposition doubled its representation in the Dail Eireann (the lower house of parliament).

It's said that Fianna Fail is now backed by the elderly and the rural voters, both dwindling categories. Labour is led by a dynamic young man of unquestionable integrity, Dick Spring. But Mr. Spring's strength is also rural, and Labour has been around even longer than the Fianna Fail. Thus, the search for a working majority goes on. Local commentators blame the "fools" in the middle - the Fine Gael Party.

Regarding themselves as the founders of the Irish state (in 1921), Fine Gael is center stage, sometimes leaning strongly to the right (quasi-fascist associations in the 1930s) and sometimes to the left (Social Democracy, under Garret FitzGerald). Under their present leader, John Bruton, they failed to make gains, even succeeded in making substantial losses, when the Fianna Fail-led government was at its most vulnerable.

Two other parties survived. The Progressive Democrats (led by Desmond O'Malley) are hard monetarists with a soft liberal coating. They favor birth control, divorce, abortion rights, and approaches to Northern Ireland. Previously a tiny minority, they now have 10 seats. They look destined for the opposition benches from which they will glower at the Democratic Left, socialists lucky to survive with four seats.

Things change, not at elections, but between them. In between November 1992 and the previous election, Fine Gael ditched an intellectually brilliant but uncharismatic leader (Alan Dukes) in favor of Mr. Bruton. This certainly brought a change of mind, though not noticeably in the charisma ratings.

So Fianna Fail and Labour will probably patch together a coalition government with a sufficient majority led by ... have I failed to mention him? Apologies. He is of course Albert Reynolds, Fianna Fail leader. Two months after reducing his party to the lowest level of support since 1927, Mr. Renyolds may be reelected Taoiseach (prime minister).

Reynolds, or "Albert" (we call our politicians by their first names; it's a form of compensation) continues to have problems. Irregularities in the very valuable beef industry have led to the establishment of a judicial tribunal of inquiry. Dessie (O'Malley) gave critical evidence last autumn which more or less prompted the general election. Albert's performance as minister for industry, his previous role, remains under scrutiny. One of the most unsatisfied inquirers into agri-fraud is Dick (Spring).

So, as a result of these proceedings, inquiries, and the vote, Ireland may get a government of ideologically divergent parties which, in addition, are led by antagonists. They will go from swapping punches before the Beef Tribunal to running the government.

Will it work? And if so how will it work?

Well, it will work because ideology doesn't amount to a hill of beans here, especially in agriculture. Fianna Fail is not only fast-forward into business enterprise, it remains the "natural party of government." It will do, or at least say, anything to hold on to power. (Or rather patronage, because power is a thing of the past.) Labour, for its part, made seductive gestures toward the Democratic Left last November, but is presently reverting to its old role of handmaid to a bigger, more conservative par ty. Labour would keep Fianna Fail clean during the next three or four years, with Fianna Fail reaping the major benefits. But by then, other noses, like the times, will be out of joint.

As we await some announcement of an anti-dramatic consequence to these very dramatic elections, the Civil Service continues to rule the country. Our Civil Service is utterly reliable, utterly dull, steadily conservative. It too will play its part in curbing business corruption and socialist extravagance in the coming years.

In the background, the other parties to Irish history make their contributions. The IRA continues to murder as opportunities present themselves. And then there are the British. What are they contemplating while the Irish establishment stirs in its sleep? Real change? And what about Europe? Will it hold together and continue to pay the bills? And has the Church really gone quiet on the abortion issue? What will the Beef Tribunal finally report on Albert? And finally, what about Mary? What of Robinsonismo ?

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