Wednesday 26 October 2016

Cornerstone of 'stability' is shaky in a highly fluid and unpredictable election

Published 11/02/2016 | 02:30


Politicians have been inexplicably blindsided by the enormity and the emotion of the public reaction to the Regency Rampage and the reprisal assassination in Dublin.

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While they were planning well-rehearsed choreographed launches, a pall of unprecedented fear, shock and disbelief descended; especially in Dublin, with genuine concern about a further escalation in the bloodshed.

Public confidence in our security services to tackle organised gangland crime has never been lower. Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan's lame excuses for lack of "specific" intelligence information didn't wash. Her belated response was inept and inadequate.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald's policing plan to provide 55 redeployed armed cops on the streets doesn't compare to the crackdown in Limerick, which resulted in sustained convictions and the imprisonment of the city's notorious gunmen. The unofficial statistics compiled by journalists list 20 organised-crime murders in the last two years - with zero detection or conviction.

A two-year wait for the Special Criminal Court saps the morale of our gardaí. Fine Gael's mantle as the 'law and order' party has been undermined by lack of arrests, wholesale retirements of senior personnel and under-investment. The gardaí suffer from chronic shortages of resources impeding their power to monitor suspects. Surveillance and technology gaps cannot be concealed.

Elsewhere, Sinn Féin's opposition to jury-less courts and Gerry Adams's confusion about gang warfare are out of touch with reality.

The historic baggage of Special Criminal Court convictions of republicans seems to inform policy, instead of focusing on how best to tackle thugs who would kill anyone in their way.

Dublin's eruption of gangland violence seems to have defined the second phase of what is proving to be a turbulent and highly unpredictable election campaign for the government parties.

The list of own goals is growing. Firstly, there was the ill-conceived and unnecessarily churlish, abrupt ending of the Dáil, without debate.

This was quickly followed by the 'fiscal farce' fiasco.

Fiscal space has now become a byword for excessive economic optimism. A wily electorate can't quite get their heads around the somersaults from austerity to €12bn of giveaways.

The Coalition had fought hard to gain the high ground on financial prudence and a reputation for having 'safe hands'. But this 'responsible government' label has got lost in confusion, amid claims of profligacy.

It is bad enough to have to endure cautionary words from the Fiscal Advisory Council - but then to have Gerry Adams lecture you on economic numeracy takes things to the boundaries of the surreal.

FG's USC plan has also yielded high and low-income losers.

Despite months of preparation, ministers appear ill-prepared. The Government has to get out of its bubble and engage with practical realities.

The Taoiseach could afford to indulge gaffes over the past five years in the confident knowledge that all controversy would dissolve in every Dáil vote.

The Government's crushing majority has rendered ministers somewhat complacent. Their power was absolute. But all that has evaporated. Instead of 'telling the people', it is now 'asking the people'.

This is a very different scenario. The hand of history is tapping Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan on the shoulder, reminding them, as if it were needed, that the iron reign of the Cabinet's Economic Management Council is over.

Labour strategists had pinned their hopes on the prospect that the end-of-January pay packets (net take-home gains) would be a game-changer, boosting their popularity.

But once again, the polls suggest that this was fantasy.

Now, many Labour TDs, especially those first elected in 2011, are waking to the reality that their seats are gone.

On the doorsteps they have to keep up a front - but polite apathy is as good as it gets. Only a handful of hardened stalwarts will survive.

Joan Burton, Alex White and Jan O'Sullivan maintain grace under acute pressure, whereas the strain on Alan Kelly is starting to show, with erratic emotions.

Another delusion was that support for non-party candidates would dissipate as voters focused on the realities of government formation.

If anything, there is anecdotal evidence of tailwinds favouring Independents. Many are established public representatives likely to pick up transfers across the board in crucial final counts. Community loyalty is tangible, party allegiances are fading.

Overriding sentiment seems to come back to the household budget situation. Where recovery isn't evident, cash is tight. But there are other issues: mortgage troubles, family who have emigrated, dissatisfaction about public health and housing. So any notion about victory laps by the Government on their record to date would be premature.

More than 60pc of voters aren't feeling the love and are preparing to dump this administration.

Therefore, talk of government 'stability' is only marginally relevant, registering low as a personal priority for many voters.

As the campaign counts down and it becomes evident how far short FG/Labour are from 80 seats of a workable majority, 'stability' looks shaky as a cornerstone of their campaign.

Voters will opt for a government based on an affinity with policy, rather than obscure post-poll prospects. My biggest disappointment is the continued preoccupation with short-term vote-winning giveaways, rather than confronting the key challenges our society faces. Our ageing demographic, accounting for an extra 20,000 pensioners per year (1.1 million by 2030), requires an integrated planned response covering pensions, healthcare and housing provision.

No party has a clear vision for education in the context of school patronage, syllabus reform and third-level funding.

We still await workable housing policies. Talk of repeal of the Eighth Amendment is also taboo. Hard choices are evaded at every turn. This has to be the most fluid and unpredictable election ever.

So much so, that it may take a second one to determine the true direction of Irish politics, when the last rites are offered to the civil war party legacy At this stage, all that's clearly apparent is what the people are against.

But few could argue that Fine Gael is not under severe pressure, with minimal appreciation of what it inherited five years ago. A hung Dáil also appears inevitable.

Irish Independent

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