With the general election now upon us, Fine Gael and Labour can be expected to highlight the need for a “strong government”, while attacks on the left parties have suggested that they are uninterested in governing and only interested in being “wreckers”. This can be a difficult argument on the doorsteps, against a long history of assuming that only parties in power can “deliver” (usually particular benefits for local groups). I want to suggest that ungovernability would not be such a bad thing, and that a “weak government” is in the interests of most people in the country.
What “strength” has meant over the past five years has been strength at imposing decisions made elsewhere – by the Troika collectively, by the EU or ECB individually, by “the markets” or in some sweetheart deal with multinationals – on a population which has been increasingly recalcitrant. Not strength in representing our interests, but strength in riding roughshod over our interests and our resistance. A strong government is not our friend if it is on the right (and there is no real chance of anything else in the next Dáil).
Conversely, on all recent opinion polls a weak right-wing government is almost certainly the least bad outcome we can hope for, whether that be a coalition of FG, Lab, SDs and independents or – on different numbers and backroom deals – FG in some sort of arrangement with FF (minority government? government of national unity?) The reason for this is that a weak government is one which is less cohesive, and less effective at imposing other people’s interests in the face of our resistance.
I don’t want to overstate the case for this – even a weak government will pull together and ignore all possible popular resistance to, for example, the US military use of Shannon or Shell’s presence in Erris, and will continue to stand over whatever violence is required. However, not every issue will be so easy to handle. Water charges stand at the head of the list of a series of impositions by recent “strong governments” which may prove far more politically problematic for a “weak government”.
At its simplest, a “weak government” is one which will have to pay far more attention to social movements and popular pressure; it will have fewer rewards to offer for loyalty and will have less scope to threaten internal “dissidents” within what is likely to be a fairly thin majority. Indeed, the strategy of “ram the changes through and people will have forgotten in five years’ time” becomes less likely if the government’s lifetime may be considerably shorter.