Tuesday 21 October 2014

Voters may look in vain for a party of basic competence

Published 02/05/2014 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore.

On the desk of every politician should stand a little notice carrying a warning. It could read, "the buck stops here" or, "it's the economy, stupid". Better still, it could bring a message which is particularly apt for members and supporters of coalition governments: "No squabbling in public."

Fine Gael and Labour have disobeyed that injunction and will suffer for it.

They have fallen out, openly, over water charges, specifically a standing charge of €50.

But as so often happens in Ireland, that is neither the real cause of the dispute nor the most relevant issue to arise from the imposition of the new tax.

Irish Water is another super-quango in a country that has too many quangoes.

Stephen Donnelly TD has called it a monster. It strikes every onlooker as unwieldy, unaccountable and expensive. It will employ too many people and pay them too much. In 29 cases, six-figure salaries.

Bonuses too.

And we learn that by the time the charge comes into operation, half the properties taxed will still not have been metered. A bad omen.

But it is neither incompetence nor excessive bureaucracy that has incited public anger and frustration. It is "austerity fatigue".

Had the water charge never existed, any of 100 other grievances could have provoked a similar reaction.

Governments are supposed to know these things and prepare for them. Instead, the coalition parties appear to have forgotten basic precepts.

Charles J Haughey, of all people, laid down one of them.

He said that in a coalition the major party should permit a minority partner to wield a little more influence than its numbers warranted.

Under the present regime, Labour supporters feel that their party has no influence at all.

Often they are wrong. But in such matters, perception can count for as much as reality, or more.

And the Labour perception partly accounts for, and greatly worsens, the discontent with the party leadership which waxes and wanes but at worst can threaten a full-blown crisis.

In this area, too, many seem to have forgotten the 'no public squabbling' rule. Demands for the removal of Eamon Gilmore and his replacement by Joan Burton have lately moved out of the wings, close to the centre of the stage – a place that should be occupied by the European and local elections.

That is not to say that the Tanaiste is in immediate danger. Overthrowing a Labour leader is immensely difficult, bordering on impossible. But it does mean a weakening of his position, and a weakening of his party's already dim prospects in the elections.

More than that, it casts doubt not only on his current position but on the solidarity of the Government over the coming months, when the campaign begins to take shape for the supreme test, the general election.

Much of the space will be filled by the inquiries into the banking collapse and the events surrounding the departure of the Garda Commissioner.

In the first case, Enda Kenny seems determined to lay the blame on Fianna Fail. He notes the remarks of the judge in the Anglo trial about "light-touch regulation".

He is right about Fianna Fail's culpability in that respect. But will the voters regard it as ancient history?

In the second case, it is the coalition parties that may have to worry.

Promises of rapid inquiries, followed by rapid reforms, have often been made but seldom fulfilled.

On this occasion, perhaps, everything will be settled in a few months. Certainly Fine Gael would prefer that to any date uncomfortably close to the general election.

But what matters for you and me and all of us is infinitely more important than the dates, out of all comparison to the water charges or the fate of Eamon Gilmore, perhaps more relevant to the health of our politics and society than even the election.

Again and again, we have had prolonged and expensive inquiries which produced excellent, sometimes frightening reports – and no results. The most shocking was the Morris Report, with its revelations of amazing Garda behaviour in Donegal.

Each time, the voters shrugged and bore it. They rebelled only in 2011, when they rightly held Fianna Fail to account for the economy.

When the time comes for them to vote in the poll that really affects their lives, they will not have such a simple choice as they had in 2011. They want some basic things from a government, like competence, frankness, fairness and some dignity in the way it conducts its affairs.

But can any party persuade them that it can govern the country as it should be governed?

Irish Independent

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