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Saturday 23 August 2014

John Drennan: Rebel TDs threaten to sink good ship Enda

In politics it's the small hurdles that trip you up -- so the FG leader needs to rein in the backbenchers , writes John Drennan

John Drennan

Published 05/02/2012 | 05:00

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If the owners of the Titanic had possessed that much-cherished virtue of hindsight they would never have claimed the ocean liner was unsinkable.

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In spite of the unfortunate precedent the current administration could hardly, at the beginning anyway, be blamed for believing they are equally invulnerable.

But, is a government which has emerged relatively unscathed from the first of Michael Noonan's budgetary miseries as secure as it thinks?

Jack Lynch, famously, noted after Fianna Fail's rout of the outgoing Coalition in 1977 that one should always be aware of the dangers associated with 'carrying a full jug'.

He was correct too, for FF lost the subsequent election while not even the cunning Bertie Ahern could secure that elusive overall majority again.

The fate of 'honest' Jack, to whom Enda bears more than a few alarming similarities, is not the only lesson from history the current becalmed Coalition of all the Cautious Old Men (and a couple of token women) should recall.

In 1993 the strange entente non-cordiale between FF and Labour could muster up a grand total of 101 seats. When one factored in the added bonus of having John Bruton as the leader of the opposition, that curious coalition was well entitled to believe they would have a 10-year run; and Dick Spring certainly behaved as if this was the case.

Of course, a Coalition, that is enjoying the even bigger bonus of having Micheal Martin as the opposition leader, claims it will not make the same mistakes as Lynch or the Spring-Reynolds administration.

However, while the tediously wary Rainbow will not say it publicly, every aspect of their demeanour and some private utterances suggest they believe this is the unsinkable administration.

They do admit there were some domestics prior to the budget, but, now everyone is united when the Troika comes to town or the trade union social partners slip in the side door to tell Enda what to do with Croke Park.

But while the Cabinet may be back together in the marital bed, the real problem it faces lies among the downstairs wing of the alliance.

In fairness, even when you don't have a 40-seat majority the tendency in politics is always to ignore the humble backbencher, but this over-confident Government should remember that while, on the Titanic, everyone saw the top of the iceberg, it was the bit that lay below the surface that sank the ship.

And, as the cuts begin to bite, suddenly a vast number of new TDs, who secured thousands of votes with the ease of one of those contestants who races through a supermarket with their trolley picking up free stuff, is beginning to realise that unlike being appointed to the House of Lords a Dail seat is not for life.

The bad news for Enda (and Eamon too) is that they are starting to panic to such an extent, that out of nowhere Fine Gael and Labour backbenchers are murdering each other in quite the non-discriminatory fashion.

What is more intriguing still is that the hidden war of the government backbenchers is not just between FG and Labour.

The FG party is now divided between the 'turnips' who have sworn undying loyalty to Enda (and a possible future junior ministry) and the self-styled idealists who have been cast out from their ageing father's house.

In Labour, meanwhile, a dusty eye is being cast by the more traditional wing at the secularising broom of Aodhan O Riordain, as God-fearing rural TDs wonder if Aodhan and the secularists are tethered goats for Ruairi Quinn or solo artists whose egos are driving the party down an ideological cul-de-sac.

The spats between and within FG and Labour began over Croke Park. FG's patience with Labour's ties to their 'special public sector friends', which so spectacularly foiled the former's drive for single-party government, is swiftly eroding.

But, as is so often the case, it is the outwardly peripheral affair of Eamon Gilmore's decision to close Ireland's embassy in the Vatican that has sparked the most vicious infighting.

As rosary beads were brandished at a few alien secularists in last week's FG party meeting, old tribal divides between the Sancerre-sipping, John Bowman-loving, self-styled socialists of Sandymount and 'the rosary-bead lovers' accelerated to such an extent that one observer noted "the likes had not been seen since the days of Oliver J" (Flanagan).

FG may believe that there "is no great strategic or economic basis outside of Gilmore's ego to close the embassy'' but another cohort of TDs is even more critical of Ruairi Quinn.

It was bad enough that FG appeared to be 'gazumped' by

Labour when " Pat Rabbitte led his little band of TDs into Ruairi Quinn's office" over the Deis debacle.

But FG TDs noted that

"small rural schools are far more critical for us'' and warned us that "if Ruairi can do a U-turn for Labour he can manage a similar U-turn for us''.

Amid increasing tensions within FG about the prospect that a Minister for Education who lives in a world alien to theirs will turn rural Ireland into a series of 'Deserted Villages', astonishingly, given his apparent role in winning the election for them, divisions have accelerated within FG over Schoolmaster Noonan's fiscal policies.

Within the party this has been crystallised by a number of private and public clashes between the Finance Minister Michael Noonan and the high-profile backbench TD Peter Matthews.

And significantly, an increasing number of TDs admit Matthews is acquiring "a growing following within the party'' to such an extent that when "Peter speaks at parliamentary party meetings, though some of Kenny and Noonan's supporters still try to silence him, far more deputies are taking notes".

If it is left to Cute Old Phil, Pat Rabbitte and the rest of the cabinet dogs of war, who know how long and hard the opposition road is, all divisions will be wallpapered over even if the house is sinking.

The problem, however, with the new ideologically driven breed of backbench TD, who believe politicians should do what they say they will do, is that, like Serbia and Austria- Hungary before the First World War, once the minor powers begin to spar, it can be difficult for the great powers to stay away.

Indiscipline, if it becomes a habit can erode the foundations of the best of governments and even this Coalition of the last-chance saloon merchants is not at all as cohesive as appearances suggest.

If the absence of money results in even more of the initial love racing out the door, a Labour Party, whose attitude to Coalition resembles Liz Taylor's views on marriage, may start to wonder if a re-invented suitably pious FF might make for a better long-term partner.

And elements of Fine Gael (though certainly not cautious Enda) may at some point wonder, if life with Labour becomes too difficult, whether a weak Labour and a divided opposition, means that a cleverly calculated run to the country might secure that dream of single-party government.

The situation is now so critical, senior ministers are privately fretting that if Kenny doesn't take aside a set of Fine Gael and Labour TDs "who are only used to being local heroes and getting a round of applause at every meeting" and give them a lesson in the art of government, "we will collapse in 18 months''.

The problem, of course, with Enda is that when you have been bullied (affectionately) by Sarkozy, patronised by Angela, when you have engaged in a political Irish jig for Obama and fawned in a modestly republican way before a queen, it's difficult to debase yourself by returning to the Lilliputian world of a James Bannon.

But though they are petty creatures, if Enda (and Eamon too, mustn't forget him) continue to ignore their bickering backbenchers they will do so at their peril.

They may be terribly lowly creatures, but as the Taoiseach of the second-largest government in the history of the State noted poignantly when he was bundled out the door after less than three years, "you get over the big hurdles and when you get to the small ones you get tripped".

Sunday Independent

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