Fianna Fail reduced to prayer while the State is on its knees
With a general election coming, the Soldiers of Destiny are set to suffer in this life, not the next, writes Ronan Fanning
SATIRISTS are best equipped to cope with yet another mind-bogglingly de- pressing week. Black humour is the most appropriate response to the exhortations of Minister for Social Protection Eamon O Cuiv on the need for prayer because "not everything is in the control of the Government" -- an admission about which the voters in Donegal South West scarcely needed reminding.
"Over the next three weeks, there are three things we have to do," he proclaimed on Highland Radio: the Budget, the four-year plan and "try and pray that this is the end of it". Only Myles na gCopaleen could have done justice to such guff: "A Dose of Prayer is Yer Only Man!"
Meanwhile, Fr Carroll, a curate in Barnstown, Co Wexford, echoed the O Cuiv remedy by reading at Mass last Sunday a prayer of his own composition, that began: "God, our Father, continue to make your presence felt among us at this moment in history."
Mr O Cuiv's panacea duly surfaced in the Dail on Thursday in an unsavoury squabble with Labour's Joan Burton, whom he accused of ridiculing both religion and prayer. Fine Gael's Fergus O'Dowd spoke most sense when he suggested that it was "the wrath of the people the minister should fear before the wrath of God".
And so it came to pass that Fianna Fail quivered under the lash of the people's wrath when the votes were counted in Stranorlar on Friday. Nor will the historical resonances between Pearse Doherty's stunning triumph and Sinn Fein's celebrated by-election victory in 1917 -- when Mr O Cuiv's grandfather, Eamon de Valera, won in Clare -- have escaped Fianna Fail.
But credit where credit is due. Mr O Cuiv at least proved that he was a chip off the old block at Tuesday's cabinet meeting when he urged the Taoiseach to go to Aras an Uachtarain to seek an immediate dissolution of the Dail.
Prayerful propensities apart, Mr O Cuiv is more mindful of the health of the body politic than his pusillanimous colleagues as they cling to their State cars like limpets to a rock.
He at least recognises that the longer an election is postponed, the greater the damage both to Irish parliamentary democracy and the economy.
For the Greens' dramatic announcement that they want an election not now but in January has further destabilised an already disastrous situation. They have pressed the switch of the starting stalls for a campaign which, if Mr Cowen has his way, could conceivably drag on until March.
Although all parties are now in election mode, the transformation has been most evident in the case of the Greens. Mr Gormley shamelessly turned his speech at the
launch of the National Recovery Plan into a party political broadcast.
Their electoral strategy is as transparent as it is naive: set as much distance as possible from your coalition partners by ignoring the spirit, if not the letter, of the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility, then pose as defenders of the national interest by voting for the Budget on December 7, while at the same time pretending to defer to popular opinion by claiming to be the architects of an early election.
Fianna Fail's options are more confused. The implications of the Donegal South West by-election are devastating. If Pearse Doherty again gets 40 per cent of the vote, Mary Coughlan may not get the transfers needed to hold her seat. And if even her seat is not safe, then few Fianna Fail TDs are safe.
The party is hopelessly divided, moreover, about who should lead it into the next election. Those who aspire to succeed Brian Cowen are also aware that given the voters' unprecedented rage against the party, there are many constituencies in which the mantle of leadership may jeopardise, rather than enhance, their prospects of being returned to the next Dail.
Last week also saw a shift in the stance of the opposition parties. "The more you read and observe about this politics thing", Will Rogers, the American humorist, once said, "you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's out always looks the best."
But the closer they get to power, the less good the opposition parties look. Pre-election jitters have already shattered any prospect of a united national front behind the National Recovery Plan.
Instead Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein have now separately pledged to renegotiate elements of the plan. Although Sinn Fein's position of a plague on the IMF, the EU and all their works has remained consistent, it is of less consequence because the party is unlikely to be in the next Government.
Labour has already wobbled. "The politics of promises is over," Eamon Gilmore told Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show on November 12. "I'm not going to go around the country and tell the people ... that cuts that were made will be reversed after the election." Yet on Thursday, less than a fortnight later, he told RTE's Sean O'Rourke that the cut in the minimum wage was "something (he) would seek to reverse".
The party's incestuous relationship with the trade unions; the impact of yesterday's ICTU march in Dublin; fears of being outflanked both by Sinn Fein (exacerbated by Labour's poor performance in Donegal South West) and by Thursday's announcement of the formation of the United Left Alliance -- these are but some of the factors likely to accelerate its flight to the left.
All of this poses an electoral dilemma for Fine Gael. On the one hand, it has always prided itself as the defender of the national interest, but on the other, it cannot afford to appear less hostile than Labour to a dysfunctional, reviled and bitterly divided Government. Hence, the party announced that it would not abstain on December 7 to let the Budget pass. Hence also the expressions of concern in the Dail on Thursday from its finance spokesman Michael Noonan -- incomparably the most impressive opposition politician in the crisis -- "about the weight of what is being imposed on Ireland".
The obsession of all parties with maximising their electoral support and their self-seeking indifference to calls for the formation of some kind of national government explains the sceptical reaction of the markets to the National Recovery Plan.
Indeed, some financial analysts have already factored in both the prospect that the Budget could be defeated on December 7 and the declarations of Fine Gael and Labour that they will seek to renegotiate the plan.
"I'm not sure if it makes much difference what Mr Lenihan and Mr Cowen really want to put forward," said one of them last Thursday, "because they are unlikely to be around for much longer."
"Whichever party is in office," British prime minister Harold Wilson remarked in 1974, "the Treasury is in power." In Ireland at the end of the first decade in the 21st Century, whichever parties are in office, the IMF is in power.
The 63 per cent of respondents in last week's Sunday Independent poll who welcomed the IMF's intervention may find that more a matter for comfort than for concern.
Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin