News Analysis

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Shane Coleman: Whining Coalition has made itself look spineless – it could learn a lot about authority from Haughey

Published 05/02/2013 | 17:00

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IT'S time for the Coalition to develop a new narrative. Its old one has become not just tired, but panicky and desperate. The best governments ooze authority. Think back to Haughey and Ray MacSharry in 1987. Its narrative was simple but hugely reassuring for the general public: "There's a crisis. There's somebody in charge. We're going to do what has to be done."

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Contrast that with Fine Gael and Labour. Simply saying you want to make Ireland "the best small country in the world in which to do business" doesn't cut the mustard. Far too often the Coalition has given the impression that it isn't calling the shots.

It might be true that it is cleaning up the mess left by the last crowd and that its hands are somewhat tied by the bailout deal. But saying it over and over again doesn't inspire confidence that it has the answers to our many problems. The Government just sounds weak and never more so than in the past few weeks.

Ministers' outbursts on the promissory note have sounded increasingly frantic. Is there anybody in Government giving any thought to just how they sound?

The promissory notes are, of course, hugely important. Having to pay the €3.1bn would be politically very difficult and a huge fiscal challenge.

But would it really be "catastrophic" for the country, as Eamon Gilmore has said? And, presuming weekend reports are correct, is it wise for the Tanaiste to link the future of his Coalition with a deal on the promissory notes?

There is a time for brinkmanship in politics but only when you retain some control over the outcome. The ECB is calling the shots here and is known for taking a dim view of overt political pressure.

As if all that wasn't bad enough, junior minister Alex White also waded in saying that the future of pay talks might be dependent on not paying the €3.1bn.

Think about the message being sent out (presumably unintentionally). Not only is the ECB calling the shots on our bank debt, but it will also effectively decide whether or not there is a general election or a Croke Park II deal. Why do we need a government so? So much for the democratic revolution proclaimed in the Programme for Government.

Of course, Fine Gael and Labour would be failing in their national duty if they did not do all in their power to renegotiate the promissory note. And it will be a considerable coup if they succeed in replacing it with a deal spread out over 20 or 30 years, in the process reducing our annual repayment.

But it won't be a panacea. There are bigger issues at stake. And by magnifying the importance of the promissory note, the Government is giving credence to those who wrongly and simplistically argue that all our woes (a property tax, water charges, cutbacks etc) are down to having to pay our banks' debt.

Even a casual glance at the budgetary figures tells us that our problems are far more acute.

The private fear among troika figures is that the Government has become too focused on bank debt at the expense of real reform. They believe there hasn't been enough progress on the public sector pay bill, long-term unemployment, over-runs in the health budget, changing our social welfare system and eliminating anti-competitive practices.

Listening to the broken record of Fine Gael and, particularly, Labour figures in recent weeks, it's impossible to disagree. Where is the reforming zeal in this Government?

Ironically, the one minister who does seem to have the bit between his teeth on reform is the one who is currently getting the most flack. Alan Shatter mightn't be everyone's cup of tea, but he does want to change things in his ministry.

The closure of garda stations was always going to be a tough sell. But the Government has largely failed to argue its case, allowing emotion and local vested interests to control the debate.

The Coalition can point to best practice internationally – mobile, well-resourced and high-intelligence police units – and appeal to the middle ground by making a virtue out of reform. But whether it's because it has been distracted by the bank debt issue or paralysed by poor opinion poll ratings (or both), it hasn't done so. It's now firmly on the backfoot on the issue.

And that's happening too often, in too many areas. The Coalition needs to readjust its focus and start worrying about the things it can control – of which there are many – instead of very publicly emoting about what it can't.

It's a government's job to govern. Fine Gael and Labour need to demonstrate – through actions, not words – that they, and not the ECB, are running the country.

Shane Coleman is political editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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