Tuesday 25 October 2016

Fine Gael could prove to be Labour's biggest foe

Published 07/12/2015 | 02:30

Irish Labour's Brendan Howlin
Irish Labour's Brendan Howlin

Just when we think every stitch has been filched from the Labour wardrobe, we learn of yet another case of Fine Gael engagement in political clothes plunder. It seems a most unlikely scenario, but Fine Gael - for so long the voice of "business and the ratepayer" - has now morphed into the workers' pal.

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Fine Gael is also emerging as a modernising force forging great social change. It turns out they are the people who gave us legislation for the X Case and they are planning a major national dialogue on the abortion clause in the Constitution.

And, you may not have realised this, but they also gave us same-sex marriage - and now they are working on other things such as cutting the bankruptcy term to one year.

It is the most blatant attempt by a senior Coalition party to gobble up the ground around its junior partner. Fine Gael are very busy out-Labouring Labour, and could prove to be their regular allies' greatest enemy come election time in the new year.

Is it a bid for an overall majority by Fine Gael? To be sure they would love that - and sometimes they talk quietly about a "hardening" of the voters' views as election day approaches. The people do not love this Government - but they may very well live with it... with, or even without, Labour.

When you publicly ask Fine Gael about it, they fall back on the mantra that they have collaborated well with Labour in Government and want that mandate renewed. But the brutal reality of political life is that Labour's vote is perceived as being up for grabs, and Fine Gael might as well have it, every bit as much as Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, or those ubiquitous Independents and others.

When you ask Labour how they feel about this continuous political clothes-theft, they affect the best ever example of whistling their way past the graveyard. "We're not bothered by Fine Gael doing this. We understand they are just doing 'the Fianna Fáil thing' of trying to be the catch-all party and addressing specific audiences and speaking to specific issues ahead of the General Election," one Labour source summed up yesterday.

"In practice it just moves Fine Gael closer to our agenda and supports our ongoing argument that we have made a real impact on this Government," the Labour person added.

This was the tenor of the reaction from Brendan Howlin last week and from party leader Joan Burton last Saturday in a keynote address at a symposium on James Connolly.

There are good grounds in reality for these Labour arguments. But the bigger question is whether the electorate will pick up on them.

The reality is that we cannot be at all sure that we would have had the 2013 Protection of Life during Pregnancy legislation without Labour being part of this Coalition. Labour also has grounds for arguing that two increases to the minimum wage would not have happened without them.

And Labour can further argue that their talk about "a living wage" has to some degree prompted the latest Fine Gael measure unveiled in yesterday's Sunday Independent. This is a welfare payment of up to €100 per week for working families on low wages.

Fine Gael's welfare support for working people has the benefit of increasing incomes without putting a hefty cost on employers, especially those in small and medium-sized businesses. It has the further indisputable social benefit of incentivising work over welfare.

It also helps differentiate the party from Sinn Féin, which presides over a welfare-dominated society north of the border. The main downside is that it will bring hefty costs that will in reality fall on the taxpayer. We have yet to see the costings for this plan. But we can be sure that it will not be cheap.

It will also raise legitimate questions about whether better-paid workers - the traditional and more likely Fine Gael supporters - should in reality be obliged to subsidise low-paid jobs. In extremis, this one might be satirised as: "Help your local sweatshop - vote Fine Gael." But as long as Ireland's new-found flush tax revenues hold good, we are unlikely to hear that one voiced as a mainstream argument.

The effect of the past week's opulent Exchequer returns was to banish all talk of economic misfortune for the moment. The Government has the wherewithal to bribe the voters in the coming weeks - something it could not have dreamt of in the darker, earlier days of its tenure.

It is also blessed with considerable disarray among the Opposition, which has so far deprived voters of a credible outline of an alternative to another government led by Fine Gael and Enda Kenny.

Sinn Féin are likely to have another very good election but appear unlikely to lead the next government.

Gerry Adams' charges also retain their capacity for self-harm, and an ongoing inability to deal with the party's dark legacy. It is almost a decade since the brutal IRA murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe in Adare. Yet just last Saturday the muddle-headed response of the Sinn Féin candidate in Fingal, Louise O'Reilly, was to stumble rather badly before eventually condemning the killing "unreservedly".

Fianna Fáil show all the signs of trying to shuffle through this upcoming election as "phase one of the recovery plan" and retaining its symbolic role as the lead party of opposition. The so-called "hard left" retains all the signs of ongoing disunity. The mixum gatherum of "Independents and Others" remains exactly that.

On that basis, Joan Burton might be on to something when she says the real election battle could be between Labour and Fine Gael. But so far it is just a crude game of first-up-best-dresssed, and Fine Gael are winning by a considerable margin.

Labour needs to pump up the volume.

Irish Independent

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