News John Downing

Friday 19 September 2014

Coalition parties doing themselves no favours with election bickering

Published 20/01/2014 | 02:30

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Environment Minister Phil Hogan has been in the wars over Irish Water’s set-up costs and spending on outside consultants.
Environment Minister Phil Hogan has been in the wars over Irish Water’s set-up costs and spending on outside consultants.

EVEN those who love their politics will have a sense of dread about one unsavoury and dreary aspect of the forthcoming European Parliament and local council elections.

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There is no shortage of posh terms for the syndrome. Try 'health rivalry', 'creative tensions' and 'brand differentiation' as just a small sample. But I prefer the simpler term: 'baba-stuff'.

I'm talking about how Fine Gael and Labour have got on quite well up to now as coalition partners. Then with just four months to go to polling day they begin this political pulling and dragging, seeking short-term advantage, doing a spot of low-grade sniping at one another, and posturing of all kinds.

Let me give you a couple of simple examples. Last week, Fine Gael heavy hitter and Environment Minister Phil Hogan was in the wars over Irish Water's set-up costs and spending on outside consultants.

Labour was evidently relieved that it was off the hook for moves to cut home improvement and adaptation grants to elderly and disabled people. It stood back from the row -- happy to chime in with some tut-tutting and claims that bonuses must not be paid to Irish Water staff. The simple reality that the Government has no real role in fixing bonuses in commercial state firms was blithely ignored. But at all events, Labour's stance was: water is Fine Gael's problem -- and thank God for that.

Then we turn to another vexed issue -- pylons. Up to now Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte of Labour has been pretty forthright. His message is, we will consult on routes and other details for this major power linkage across Leinster into Munster. But it has to happen.

And he appeared to be getting backing from Fine Gael, with Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney and even the Taoiseach sending out a similar message. In fact, perhaps it was the Taoiseach's ill-judged use of language on this topic that caused a certain, er, 'clarification' to come from him on the issue last week.

Fine Gael TDs and senators, eyeing up the forthcoming election campaigns, were appalled by Mr Kenny's 'gaffe in the Gulf' on January 6. Speaking on a trade mission in Saudi Arabia, he said the pylon network was necessary if Ireland was to stem emigration and create jobs. But nine days later he created a whole welter of confusion when he told the FG parliamentary party that there must be more consideration on the issue. It had a sort of 'You're on your own, Pat Rabbitte' ring to it.

Then there is the 'limelight' row, which is still rumbling on. This one has a definite 'baba' ring to it.

In summary it goes like this: on December 15 last year, the Taoiseach addressed the nation to mark the formal end of the 2010-2013 EU-ECB-IMF bailout. Over the ensuing days, RTE gave a special slot to Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and Independent TD Shane Ross to also have their say.

But Labour and Eamon Gilmore fell down the cracks because the Taoiseach had blocked the government slot -- though Gilmore did get a long interview on the RTE '6.1 News' around the same time. There followed tantrums and a warning -- if this happens again Labour has to get its limelight portion.

Things were not helped by tales of Social Protection Minister Joan Burton being 'bumped off' Sean O'Rourke's RTE radio show in favour of Finance Minister Michael Noonan. That one apparently happened on Friday, December 13, the last working day before the bailout ended.

Apart from this kind of carry-on, there are some real points of tension within the Coalition, which require constant management. Labour TDs have an aversion to Health Minister James Reilly.

On the other side of that coin, Fine Gael TDs resent the 'easy ride' Joan Burton got in the Budget when she got away with far lower spending cuts.

But this can be at least partly explained by her much better ministerial performance than Reilly's.

Added to all this, there are also tensions within the two parties as thoughts turn to a well-flagged Cabinet re-shuffle expected after the council and European Parliament elections. Unsurprisingly, some ministers feel they are perilously close to the door while juniors and backbenchers ponder promotion. But that is all for another day.

In the meantime, we accept that Fine Gael and Labour are two separate parties. We accept that they have compromised to forge common government policies in coalition. We accept that they have to fight separate council and European Parliament election campaigns.

But they really should leave this baba-stuff to one side. It is a dangerous distraction from the main business of fixing the economy and creating jobs.

If both parties continue to play these silly games, the public will be well entitled to give their votes to candidates from any other party or to independents.

And finally, if you have any doubt that this is 'baba-stuff', remember there is every chance that FG and Labour will have a transfer pact in operation in the May elections.

Irish Independent

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