Monday 24 October 2016

How much more of this can we take?

Dodging decisions, coddling the rich, Enda seeks his rightful place in history, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30

illustration by Tom Halliday
illustration by Tom Halliday

You'd almost feel sorry for Enda Kenny. There he is, securing his place in the history of this great little nation, and right in front of him Fine Gael is interviewing candidates for his job.

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He's on the phone to Angela Merkel and in come Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, measuring the office curtains and arguing about which of them gets to choose the new carpet.

"Don't mind us, Taoiseach, we'll be out of your hair in a minute", and they trying to keep the chuckles out of their voices.

Since the general election in February, we've been living in a political fantasy land, designed by and built in honour of Mr Kenny. We could have a stable government, albeit a reactionary one, but that would be against the long-term interests of the major parties.

In 2011, Fine Gael got the votes of those disgusted by Fianna Fail, their banker friends and their builder buddies.

In 2016, disgusted by the endless austerity, the more desperate of such voters went back to Fianna Fail, most went all over the place.

Some to Sinn Fein, some to the left-wing parties, many to Independents.

The arithmetic of the election results was simple. Only a coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail could provide a stable government. It would be a grim right-wing government, but that's what the arithmetic said, and there was no unbridgeable gap in policy.

The two parties, though, insist on maintaining the old civil war enmities. Besides, Enda Kenny desperately wanted to be Taoiseach again, the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected at the head of a Fine Gael-led government.

There was an even more pressing reason to avoid a straightforward coalition. Throughout the history of the State, the division has been between two right-wing parties. Each might embrace populist policies, lurch to the centre occasionally, but mostly it was about who would best manage the same policies.

If FF and FG joined in formal coalition, sitting on the same side of the Dail, the future choice would be between them and an opposition on their left.

Such a coalition would be a stable government, but at the price of having to abandon the old mock fights. It would risk conceding credibility to Sinn Fein and the left-wing parties.

Desperate to avoid this, Kenny cobbled together a makeshift, unstable coalition with Independents to form a minority government. Fianna Fail is a semi-detached part of that coalition, while still dominating the opposition benches.

So, we get an unstable government that might collapse at any time.

And a cabinet that last week bought itself time by ditching the principle of collective responsibility, and to hell with the Constitution.

Enda keeps inventing mechanisms to put off decisions until this collapsible government is in office long enough not to look like a historical joke - at which point he can credibly quit.

FF denounces the government, then votes with it - even when it's voting down something that was a redline issue a few months back.

Daily, the air is filled with anguished cries as John Halligan wrestles with his conscience. (Small tip, John: do one thing, or the other. Don't tell us about your anguish. It's embarrassing.)

I wish I could read journalist Shane Ross making mincemeat of Minister Shane Ross.

Meanwhile, Enda last week appointed James Reilly deputy leader of Fine Gael, because he felt a bit guilty about the way he'd treated him. James says he's delighted, because he gets to travel around the country, talking to Fine Gaelers.

Jesus, lads, deputy leader of Fine Gael - you have no idea the number of backsides most of us would kiss, the number of kittens we'd strangle, to get out of being saddled with such a terrible fate.

Katherine Zappone - well, words fail me.

And Frances Fitzgerald last week referred to Joe Biden as "my counterpart". It seems that as Tanaiste she's vice-president to Enda Obama.

From time to time, there's a crack in the facade and we get a glimpse of the fantasy world in which these people see themselves.

All of this is facilitated by a political press gang that cannot imagine change that goes beyond the political Lego kit made of FF, FG, Labour and Others. In the months during which Enda was putting together his collapsible government, the political media tried to envisage something new, and failed, falling into reveries about the fictional Borgen. Politics as a TV box set.

Outside the Dail, Joe O'Toole was appointed to head the body designed to delay a decision on the water charges scandal. He promptly mouthed off, attacking those against water charges. Simon Coveney, who appointed him, accused O'Toole of being - get this - "overly forthright".

Simon seems to believe that being forthright -meaning, frank, honest, sincere - has no place in Irish politics.

O'Toole noted that his job was "a political exercise" designed to "resolve a problem which has emerged from the democratic process".

Admirably frank, Joe.

Joe explained said that "people voted a certain way", (against water charges). And "Leinster House is not prepared to grasp that particular nettle, so we (his commission) have to find a solution that will have enough sugar on it to make the medicine go down easily".

Sweeten the water charges nettle to get the mugs to swallow it. A lovely image, Joe.

O'Toole's words came from his understanding of the job, as conveyed to him by Simon Coveney. I wonder how Simon explained the job to Joe's replacement, Kevin Duffy?

So, the Government spins in circles until Enda figures he's been Taoiseach long enough to make his record bid legit. All the while hoping that it doesn't collapse, by accident or design.

The net effect of Enda's period in office will be assessed when he goes, but the raw materials for that assessment are coming together.

In the last couple of years, hospital waiting lists have gone up by 26pc. And, according to's FactCheck outfit, in the two years to May inpatient waiting lists have risen by 56pc.

House building fell drastically since the crash of 2008, as might be expected. Since Fine Gael and Labour - and now Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (plus Others) came into office, house building has been in freefall.

And local authority house building has been virtually stamped out of existence.

Homelessness is not an accident. Under Fianna Fail, playing chicken with the economy, it was inevitable. Under Enda, Leo and Simon (and vice-president Fitzgerald) it's been a policy.

Last Tuesday evening in the Dail, Sinn Fein raised measures to tackle zero-hour contracts, which exploit the very hardworking low paid. Fine Gael wanted to immediately shoot down reform.

Fianna Fail supported this, then made a pitch for the trade union vote by postponing the issue (until the cows come home).

As they keep the poor in place, their policies coddle the rich.

Last week, Stephen Donnelly and Richard Boyd Barrett both alerted the Dail to the effects of government support for vulture funds. Donnelly spoke of one outfit that will get a return of €400m on an €80m investment.

Of course, they have to pay tax. Donnelly explained one aspect of that: "Interest income minus the interest costs for the year come to €4,559,904. Astoundingly, the figure for administrative expenses against that is €4,558,904, leaving exactly €1,000 in taxable profit."

So neat, so well done, it makes me feel like cheering. Or screaming.

Sunday Independent

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