Friday 21 October 2016

Let's stop the charade and form a government

This game of pass the parcel does no one any favours, is it time to cut the crap and have another election, asks Brendan O'Connor

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

TALKS: Fine Gael’s Simon Harris, Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald, Sean Kyne and Simon Coveney arrive for discussion with Independents and Greens. Photo: Tom Burke
TALKS: Fine Gael’s Simon Harris, Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald, Sean Kyne and Simon Coveney arrive for discussion with Independents and Greens. Photo: Tom Burke

The vignettes emerging of our politicians right now are unflattering to say the least. Take the image of Leo Varadkar sitting across from Michael Healy-Rae idly texting on his phone while ostensibly getting on with the pressing business of forming a government. According to Niall O'Connor in the Irish Independent, Healy-Rae eventually called Leo on his behaviour in strong Kerry terms. The idle texting won't be a hard image to conjure for many of Leo's colleagues. He is apparently as known for his semi-detached attitude in private as he is in public.

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And then of course there was the phone call business on Thursday between Enda and Micheal. On the face of it, it looked like childish nonsense, but of course there was a very real intent behind it on both sides. It's back to pass the parcel. No one wants to be caught being less than eager to form a government. So who picked up the phone first, is critical. And of course there is yet another layer of intent behind that. Which is that no one wants to form a government right now, especially an unstable one. The big clue to that was on the front page of the Irish Times: "Election pledges at risk from spending time bomb".

The Times points out that overruns and unexpected extras in health, education and justice will limit the scope for anyone who goes into government to keep their election promises, and another HSE bailout could also cause trouble with Europe. This story popping up right now probably isn't a coincidence, as Noonan was preparing to meet the Independents and brief them on the economy.

So if someone did get caught to go into government now they would have a pretty nasty budget ahead of them. Now a nasty budget in year one wouldn't be the end of the world if you were confident you were going to be still in power in years two, three, four and maybe five, and if you were happy that the economic cycle was going to align nicely with the political cycle. And many politicians seem to think it might eventually. There is a belief that this year might be the last really nasty budget and that the following few years might see more wriggle room for a government to do popular things.

But that doesn't help an unstable minority government which, even if it got past the nasty budget, is permanently weakened by it, and is subject to populist pressure not only from the opposed opposition but from the opposition who are supposed to be supporting the government from across the floor.

It's becoming clear already that trying to keep Independents onside is going to involve all kinds of ridiculous horse-trading. There is huge merit in some of what Fine Gael is said to be offering Independents. The proposals on disability make enormous sense. Finally ratifying the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, personalised budgets for people with disabilities who require services, increased funding for housing adaptation schemes and flexibility in social welfare payments to help the disabled to move into employment while also enjoying a safety net, are all eminently sensible and should all have been done by the last government.

But then you look at what Michael Healy-Rae wants, and you might even be tempted to start idly playing with your phone. For example, Healy-Rae has four very specific proposals around supporting post offices and postmasters' salaries. As you might have guessed, Healy-Rae is a postmaster. Which puts a pathetic sting in the tail of these proposals, whatever their general merits.

The assumption up to now has been that Enda Kenny has been willing to put up with this kind of nonsense because he is the only one desperate enough to form a government, because his own personal political survival depends on it and because his view is a short-term one. But you'd wonder at this stage firstly whether his colleagues are as keen as he is to form an unstable government that may only last for the unpopular first budget or so. Is this why Leo is texting when he should be making deals?

By Friday, courtesy of Barry Cowan, Fianna Fail was portraying Fine Gael as the unreasonable party, who were apparently treating Fianna Fail like dirt on their shoes. And so pass the parcel continued. Not about who would form a Government, but about who would get the blame for not forming one.

You'd have to imagine at this stage that all eyes are on the next election, so rather than continuing this current charade, which is unedifying for everyone, maybe we should all just start being straight with each other and have another election. But maybe the dance needs to continue for a while more yet. The only worry for the politicians being that the dance is not doing any of them any favours. Voters are fed up of the antics now.

So what happens if there is another election? Our poll today suggests the momentum is with Micheal Martin. You would imagine that the ideal from the point of view of Fianna Fail, is that they would be in a better position to form some sort of a left-of-centre rainbow after another election, probably with Labour, the Greens and maybe the SocDems and others. Fianna Fail, Labour and the Greens would strike you as three parties who are willing to be unpopular for periods. To be unpopular in government would be a serious turn-up for the books for Fianna Fail, who have been pariahs in opposition for five years. Eamon Ryan seems to be willing to suck it up too if it means he gets to implement some of his ideology.

Ryan is still largely unapologetic for his last period in government and points to the many things that he achieved by being part of that government. And Labour, for their part, endured years of unpopularity in the last government, so things couldn't get worse for them. So possibly all of them would be prepared to forsake the short-term unpopularity of this year's budget if they felt that things would get better after that and they could all get some redemption.

You'd imagine that Eamon Ryan's sudden volte-face on going into government is the clearest sign yet that a government is not going to be formed and an election is in the offing. Ryan was the first out pimping himself to go into government with anyone after the election. He was also very strongly of the opinion that a government should be formed, and that every party had to do its duty to that end. He was the one who chided the left for ruling themselves out of government. So Ryan's decision to now support the formation of a government from the opposition benches presumably means that this shrewd operator knows which way the wind is blowing and doesn't want to be involved in the charades and the messing any longer, preferring to keep his powder dry for another election. Ryan may have felt a bit exposed too by the fact that all his other comrades on the genteel left of centre - Labour and the Soc Dems - had ruled themselves out.

But maybe Fine Gael will have ambitions to put together a government after the next election too. Which leads us to the elephant in the room, as Enda is now referred to. With Enda presumably a goner when he fails to cobble together anything right now, Fine Gael will be looking for a new leader.

Despite our poll today, the shine is well gone off Leo with his colleagues, and his seeming inability to even make a good show of trying to put a government together in the last few weeks won't help. Simon Coveney, on the other hand, has been dashing around the place with vigour trying to put together a deal, looking like a leader. And then, who knows?

Perhaps Coveney might feel that he needs a few years as an impressive leader of the opposition before he's ready for Taoiseach, so maybe the Fianna Fail-led Rainbow would suit him too. Fine Gael returns then in three, four or five years, with a new generation in charge and ready to lead again. All of which seems more likely, more sensible, and more grown-up than the current shenanigans.

Sunday Independent

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