Saturday 1 October 2016

A very shaky take-off signals a short life for the new Government

Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny receives his seal of office from President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Taoiseach Enda Kenny receives his seal of office from President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Brussels diplomats like to say: "EU treaty negotiations begin with high diplomacy - and end in a dirty row over fish quotas." In Ireland's case, the 10-week quest for this extraordinary hybrid Government began with lofty talk about "new politics" - and ended with a row over turf-cutting, which almost derailed the project right on deadline.

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There were just 17 minutes left on those stopwatch devices, which adorn the walls of the Dáil chamber and count downwards to the end of a debate and the call for a vote. Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny had sat for over two hours with inscrutable countenance, the only hint of nerves being his bending and straightening of a paper clip, over and over again.

Up above him, in the tiny public gallery, sat his wife, Fionnuala and their three children, who also managed to maintain their composure.

Speaker after speaker literally talked down the reverse-counting clock, everyone conscious that deadlocked talks were going on just a few hundred metres away between various Independents and the Fine Gael team.

But with those 17 minutes on the clock, Fine Gael negotiator Simon Coveney strode into the chamber, followed by Independent Alliance member Kevin 'Boxer' Moran and, little by little, most of the other Independent TDs. There were broad smiles from the Fine Gael benches as confirmation of a 'deal' spread.

The ensuing vote, where Kenny got just one vote over the minimum requirement of 58, confirmed that this was an inauspicious start for a brave new experiment in government by consensus.

Some of the vitriol which was poured forth from those who voted against Kenny had reminded us that the adversarial 'old politics' remains a potent force.

Veteran politicians from all parties and none privately concede that the lifespan of the new Government will not be long. The view is that this Fine Gael-led minority coalition, with supporting Independents, and with the kind permission of Fianna Fáil, will pass one Budget and struggle into 2017.

By this time next year, we are likely to be facing another general election. There are just too many things playing against the durability of this wonky government arrangement.

The Independents who are supporting this Government are going to have to learn a new way of doing politics.

Fianna Fáil must learn to cope with their political jitters, fend off Sinn Féin jibes and live with Fine Gael successes.

Fine Gael must learn to be less dictatorial in their dealings with Independents and Fianna Fáil, while also managing a smooth replacement of their leader.

What is the likelihood of all those moving parts cling-clanging along in harmony?

Experience teaches us that it is a long shot. We are not about to go all sensibly Nordic overnight. One or other or all of those moving parts risk colliding and wrecking the entire works.

Equally, the civil service will have to adopt a new, more open culture. Answers to parliamentary questions, for example, must be framed to deliver information - not obfuscate and dodge issues.

The challenge for Kenny, and whoever succeeds him as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, will be to prove sceptics such as this writer wrong.

There would be huge advantages in doing our politics differently, relying on collaboration and consensus and reducing the amount of cant and rhetoric.

Real moves towards developing such a changed political culture now depend very much upon Fianna Fáil, above any other group. They have pledged not to aid any no-confidence moves and to facilitate the Budget.

At the same time, Fianna Fáil have also pledged to be a vigorous opposition.

It will be more than interesting to see how they manage those two inherently conflicting roles.

Micheál Martin's challenge may in fact be trickier than the one faced by Kenny.

He has carried himself well in the election aftermath and extracted political advantage for his party. But such things can be short-lived.

For the rest, this new Government faces into an uncertain future.

Irish Independent

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