Watching the footsy playing between the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour, I’m reminded of my time in the PDs during the very first FF/PD government. I wasn’t an active member at the time of the negotiation, but became active afterwards, and remember the acrimony within both the PDs and FF over the very first coalition. There are things the Lib Dems (and Tories) can learn from the Irish experience.
For a start, get ready for the backlash. It took the PDs years to recover from putting Charlie Haughey and Fianna Fail back in, during which hundreds of party members quit. I have no doubt that the Lib Dems will suffer a major haemorrage of members and poll numbers when they do a deal, mostly from people who just can’t grasp the reality of politics. But that’s what happens when you cross over from being a protest party to a party in power. The Greens are finding the same thing. You’ll get over it, and start attracting more pragmatic members who want to join a party that can actually get things done.
Don’t get too palsy-walsy with your coalition partners. The PDs initally kept their voters happy by making FF suffer in public, and then lost them when they became too comfortable with FF. Both the Lib Dems and the Tories will need to keep their respective voters happy by occasionally putting manners on the other bastards. Yes, by all means, deliver on policy, just remember that some people vote for you because they hate the other guys, and want to see you occasionally put the boot in. Both coalition partners should be professional enough to expect a bit of what Michael McDowell used to call “shouldering off the ball”
Finally, remember this day. Marc McSharry, who is now an FF senator, said to me (we were in boarding school together) on the day the first FF/PD coalition was formed that “This time, the first time, will be the hardest. After this, people won’t give coalition with FF a second thought.” He was right. Now coalition is the norm in Irish politics, and once the Lib Dems do the deal, the public will get used to the idea and, more importantly, lose their fear of a hung parliament. In Ireland now, I reckon that the great majority of Irish people do not actually want a single party to run the country anymore, and like coalition parties keeping an eye on each other. I could easily see the British people getting comfortable very quickly with that concept.