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Saturday 30 August 2014

John Drennan: Deal eases Cabinet stress, for now

Enda and Eamon's union is precariously dependent on fate and the kindness of others, writes John Drennan

Published 01/07/2012 | 05:00

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The EU banking deal certainly came in the nick of time for a Coalition which, up to the early hours of Friday morning, appeared to be already suffering from the political equivalent of the seven-year itch.

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On one level, the disillusion and wandering eyes were all the more surprising given that only 15 months had passed since that 14-year sentence of enforced celibacy on the opposition benches.

However, whilst that bold political child Leo Varadkar may have been the sole minister who fell out of the turbulent Cabinet bed, the disaffection was, before the miracle of Europe, so widespread that the Taoiseach felt it necessary to take out the big stick to quell the unruly children.

As 'Pink but Invisible' Eamon Gilmore also laid into Leo with the political feather duster, the calm, which followed the spin about how a set of squabbles involving more than half the Cabinet was merely a case of silly-season madness, was distinctly uneasy.

The Government would be right to be concerned, too, as the outbreaks of the sort of straight-talking that is not, apparently, part of this administration's increasingly curious (and even more increasingly hard to find) reform agenda, are symptoms of far deeper troubles.

Recently, the second most cunning participant in Irish politics during the Celtic Tiger era issued the confident prophecy to a select gathering that the government with the biggest majority in the history of the State would not survive past the three-year mark.

In spite of his record, our man was greeted with mocking laughter, for whilst one of the less-than-great truisms of Irish politics is that governments with large majorities have performed badly, this administration was seen as being different, unlike the super-sized administrations of Jack Lynch and Albert the Unready, which met their maker long before their designated due date.

Apart from the fact that should the Grumpy Old Men collapse, they would have nowhere outside of the political desert to go, it was believed their normally cautious spines would be stiffened by the unprecedented scale of the mandate that Fine Gael and Labour received. However, the euphoria occasioned by the defenestration of Biffo disguised the existence of some serious design flaws which the Grumpy Old Men would inevitably have to confront.

Ironically, the first problem this administration faced was the scale of its somewhat accidental mandate. This did not merely pose Enda and Mr 'Pink but Invisible' with the "devil makes work for idle hands" dilemma that is always provided by unfortunate events like an excess of intelligent backbenchers.

Instead, the real problem was that large majorities are the litter of huge mandates and the bad news for our fellows is that great mandates are the parent of even greater expectations.

This was bad enough but the Grumpy Old Men faced the equally serious structural problem of having secured two conflicting mandates in which Labour were sent in to serve, and FG to take the hatchet to, the public sector.

Political convenience and the desire for stability meant the two opposites were yoked together in some unfortunate sort of metaphysical union. However, the inherent design flaw that was contained in this particular marriage was further complicated by the ongoing divide in Fine Gael between the Roundhead Pragmatist wing of the party, namely Enda, Michael Noonan and Cute Old Phil and the dispossessed reformist Cavalier wing that for now, outside of Leo Varadkar and Peter Matthews, dares not name its name.

Astonishingly, these stresses were accentuated even further when in their first excited days, the Grumpy Old Men promised there would be no increases in personal taxation rates, no cuts in the basic rate of social welfare and that the Croke Park deal -- negotiated by their patently inept Fianna Fail surrendered wives -- would be defended to the hilt.

It was an error that may yet prove fatal, for in essence, on entering office, this Government decided to do a Houdini act in reverse.

Like Rousseau's child, the new Government may have left the electoral maternity ward free, but this lot decided to bind themselves up with a second set of improbable promises to go with the chains they made for themselves before the election.

Last week's spectacle of all the toys being thrown out of Leo's pram and of Enda playing Victorian dad were the latest symptoms of the stresses being caused by these promises. And though, like all children's tantrums, the squabble did not last long, plenty more carbuncles are bubbling to the surface, for whilst Leo is only going through the political equivalent of the terrible twos, when the somewhat more seasoned Pat Rabbitte starts sending up distress flares, then the centre is starting to wobble.

And the shuddering may, despite Enda's really scary 'diktat', accelerate further for suddenly the Government appears to be suffering the political equivalent of that moment where time accelerates, the clock appears to run faster and no matter what you do, the problem, be it the catching of an early morning train or passing that examination, becomes increasingly impossible.

In the case of this Government, the political dangers it faces are accentuated by the devastating nature of the scorched earth it inherited.

One of the cruellest consequences of that particular blight is that even when the Grumpy Old Men (and a couple of token women) do that which is right, it will be wrong. Ireland's bankruptcy means we have no choice but to introduce third-level fees by stealth (there is no point in being too brave now!), property charges and water charges, so that we begin to learn how to govern ourselves like normal people.

The current fiscal structure, even in the aftermath of the EU deal, however, means that in reforming the State, we damage ourselves even further for we are reducing the money supply to our stagnant domestic economy.

The Irish paradox does not, alas, end there either for further reforms such as cutting welfare, or ending the astonishing scenario whereby a bankrupt exchequer pays some of the highest public sector salaries in Europe, will inflict more damage on our brittle domestic economy.

And inevitably, should that occur, the consequence of an accelerated collapse of the High Street is that unemployment, with the demands that it brings on our bust finances, will continue to rise.

As the Government finds itself in the execrable position of being forced to do that which will not work, it is to the Grumpy Old Men's credit that they are not entertaining us by fighting like a sack of cats every week. However, the current draining of morale, and of any desire for the dangerous path of reform, will not, for all its attractions, bring them to any better spot.

In fairness, the gathering apathy is to some extent utterly logical, for it is worth noting, for example, that last week's increments furore was over what is, within the current context, a pitiable two hundred million euro.

But whilst it is possible to sympathise with the reluctance to charge the Croke Park Bastille for a 'hapworth of tar', the safety-first ethos of 'austerity without reform' may, ironically, be shortening their political lifespan.

The cruel truth is that the difficulties of an administration, whose problems are all the more intractable because they are strategic rather than tactical, are too fundamental to be defined by whimsical comedies such as The Seven Year Itch.

Instead, the Government's dilemma more closely resembles those Germans in Stalingrad, who with their supply lines cut off and their political credit gone, faced the appalling alternatives of either trying to break out or to defend the city. The inevitable consequence of either decision was that the army would be chopped up by the Russians.

Like their German predecessors, the Government, if it is to survive the current siege that surrounds it, is precariously dependent on the kindness of strangers and accidents of fate.

It would be unfair to dismiss the new EU banking deal as being the sole consequence of kindness or of fate, for the Government, in the face of much derision, made its own luck there.

But whilst fortune may have favoured the cautious last week, before they completely discard their reform agenda our currently not so Grumpy Old Men should note that, in the long run, Dame Fortune still tends to favour the brave over the 'pragmatic'.

Sunday Independent

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