A Dáil in decline, protests dictating policy - and a government doomed to instability
Published 06/05/2016 | 02:30
In the old days, most politicians wanted to be in government. For Fianna Fáil, government was the norm. Fine Gael, always in second place ahead of Labour, fluctuated in popularity depending on its leader. Labour held up the rear, distinguishing itself by vigorous opposition to successive Fianna Fáil administrations, particularly in the Spring era.
The Progressive Democrats were newcomers who, despite their size, upended the entire pecking order by making up the numbers with Fianna Fáil, thereby 'breaking the mould' in Irish politics. This came about not out of idealism, but from pragmatism. Fianna Fáil overcame its distaste for coalition so as to rule. For the Progressive Democrats, being in government was the only place to be to bring about reforms.
This new alliance was disastrous for Fine Gael and Labour. The Progressive Democrats were not only propping up the old enemy Fianna Fáil, but were also blocking the opposition parties from getting into power when Fianna Fáil's electoral star was waning. Independents were rare as unicorns. The far left were ideological loners. In the main, Irish politics was dominated by those four parties.
How things have changed. The Dáil is altogether a more toxic place. There seems to be little sense of collective pride in being a TD, and little cross-party camaraderie. Exchanges are bitter and humourless. The members' restaurant is underused, most people opting to grab a sandwich or fast food. Some wear scruffy clothes, the dress code no longer enforced by the powers-that-be.
In the old days, an usher would politely tap a deputy on the shoulder if he or she was jacketless or without a tie. Nowadays anything goes. T-shirts, jeans, trainers. As a former Whip and member of the Committee of Procedure and Privileges, I enquired about this sartorial decline - and learned that the Whips don't want to make a scene about dress code when there are so many offenders. To do so would only hand them ammunition for further protest.
And boy are they good at protest. In fact, some of the Anti-Austerity Alliance claim they were "elected to protest". One recently quipped with pride when referring to the climbdown on water charges that "what can be legislated for in the Dáil can be undone on the street."
Where will this all go? A TV interview this week with Paul Murphy about the agreement that would see Fianna Fáil supporting a Fine Gael minority government was instructive. With multiple references to the victory of street protest over Irish Water, Murphy said the same forces would be employed on issues such as housing, low pay and abortion rights. So that is what we have to look forward to over the next while. Mobilisation of angry people, some of whom are willing to break the law, in street disturbances, blockades and intimidation aimed at unravelling government policy and fomenting disorder. This suggests we need a review of policing for political street protest given the ugly scenes experienced last year.
Most people were baffled that Mr Murphy will be entitled to legal aid in defending charges relating to a protest in West Dublin, even though he earns a Dáil salary of more than ¤87,000 plus expenses. Because he was able to show that he gifted most of his salary to his party for political activism and lived on ¤1,800 per month, the taxpayer is to foot his legal bill. What sort of precedent does that set? Since Sinn Féin deputies claim to gift most of their salaries to the party, does the same rule apply to them when it comes to legal aid? That a person gifts most of his or her salary to a cause is neither here nor there when it comes to assessing income in my view, and raises questions about equality before the law.
Not surprisingly, the row on Irish Water rumbled on this week with confusion about whether people should discharge outstanding bills or be entitled to refunds now that charges have been suspended.
The whole thing is a mortifying mess of bad governance, which still has the capacity for discord down the line with both parties reserving the right to take different positions on whatever emerges from the Commission process.
Fianna Fáil negotiator Jim O'Callaghan, who, like all barristers, can ably defend the indefensible, was anxious to stress that the party had managed to get a significant amount of its policy into the deal - on tax, mortgage relief and suspending water charges. And it is true they extracted maximum concessions while staying in opposition. They are having it both ways and are openly lording it over a weakened Fine Gael.
But most people can see the fudge on Irish Water is bad politics, expensive and populist. Proper politicians, particularly the Greens and Labour, should continue to articulate the need for massive investment in water and sewage infrastructure. The truth is that unless people pay for it, the billions required will have to come from other vital spending budgets such as health, education and housing.
Fianna Fáil will claim a victory for brokering a hike of 15pc in rent supplement. This is an expensive concession, costing an estimated ¤55m per year on top of the ¤267m paid in rent supplement allocated for 2016.
But experts argue that a blanket increase on rent limits will not address the underlying issue of supply, which is the main problem in Dublin and other urban areas.
The Department of Social Protection had been using a targeted approach in paying above the rent limits on a case-by-case basis and more than 7,500 households had been helped in this way to retain or acquire rented accommodation. Due to the chronic shortage in the private rented market, this extra Exchequer spending is unlikely to deliver the extra accommodation needed.
The as-yet-unknown shopping list of the Independents will be more difficult to satisfy.
If Enda Kenny makes it over the line in the vote for Taoiseach, few will begrudge it to him personally. But it will be a pyrrhic victory - he will be presiding over an inherently unstable administration subject to a temporary licence to govern.