Wednesday 28 September 2016

Brazen FF, craven FG and Independent hubris - no wonder I'm shouting at the TV

Published 22/04/2016 | 02:30

The Provost's house in Trinity College where the talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail took place. Photo: Tom Burke
The Provost's house in Trinity College where the talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail took place. Photo: Tom Burke

Another week of stalemate, with little progress made in the talks to form a sustainable government. The change of venue from Leinster House to the scholarly surroundings of Trinity College down the road just adds to the absurdity of it all.

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I find myself shouting at the TV as political correspondents strive to maximise trivial developments, and are often reduced to describing the "mood music".

So where are we now? This week has seen discussions finally start between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the terms and procedures involved in Fianna Fáil supporting a minority Fine Gael government, should that party manage to win over the support of sufficient Independents to reach the magic number of 58. But Fianna Fáil is over-reaching in that regard and is being allowed to do so. Bizarrely, in my view, Fianna Fáil is trying to call the shots on a range of policy issues, as if it was negotiating a programme for a coalition government. Fine Gael is in submission mode, hopelessly compromised. It's not looking good.

Independents, now waiting in the wings, were hopping mad at what looked like Fine Gael briefing against them by way of a rough tot of their various demands published by the 'Sunday Independent' last weekend. But to be fair, it was high time an estimate of the cost of buying the votes of Independents, reported to be €13bn, was put out there. For shock value alone, it was instructive. The additional notion of five Cabinet seats going to Independents, as suggested by Finian McGrath, brought the public out in a rash.

It even propelled Labour to contemplate for the first time a re-entry into government in the hope of remaining relevant. My own view is that the party's recovery would be better served in government, with power and a few Seanad seats rather than competing for opposition airtime with the looney left and Sinn Féin. The Greens and the Social Democrats too are opting to sit this one out, which suggests self-preservation rather than looking at the national interest.

By the end of the week, Labour too had plumped for Opposition, when it was clear that the leadership had no hope of getting past a special delegate conference to go back into government.

For a frustrated public, it's like a long game of snakes and ladders. Hopes are raised and then dashed until the next inexpert throw of the dice. Eight weeks on and we are still going around in circles.

What baffles me is that Fianna Fáil now appears to be trying to achieve some of its policy agenda as a price for "facilitating" the formation of government. For example, we witnessed the wrangling all this week over its policy of abolishing Irish Water and deferring water charges for five years. This is totally unreasonable. You do not achieve your policy objectives or have your policy implemented if you are not in government.

The price for Fianna Fáil facilitating the formation of a minority government should be principally procedural, in arrangements for greater consultation, Dáil reform, civil service briefings on legislation, speaking time, whip co-operation and perhaps the chair of a few committees in recognition of bipartisanship. Facilitating the minority government should not be a vehicle through which major policy is traded. Yet this is what appears to be happening.

These inter-party talks also appear rudderless and without structure. Although comprised of sensible TDs on both sides, the negotiations should be chaired by a respected person such as the current or previous Ceann Chomhairle, who could put some shape and limits on the discussions.

The formula of "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" is a recipe for procrastination. The talks are getting bogged down on detailed policy matters rather than procedure, which is a mistake. Water is the first and the list is long. It all looks so incompetent - and it is. Independents are standing by. Only one has broken ranks and signed up: newly elected TD Katherine Zappone, having been promised enough to enlist her support.

I remain unconvinced that Independents are a reliable basis for government formation. Their demands usually relate to their own pet projects and obsessions rather than the national interest. In yet another moment of hubris, Mr McGrath suggested that their demands would have to be delivered in the first 100 days. No government should be held to ransom like that.

Another worrying aspect of reliance on the Independents is that when asked how long they expect the minority government would last, they suggest two or three budgets at the most. Is this meant to be a good outcome? A government with such a short life expectancy is doomed from the start. After 18 months, an election would be in the air, triggering the usual populist play-acting. A two-year administration would not give enough time to govern effectively or deliver on projects like housing or health service demands. Fine Gael should be talking about a full-term government, not a short-term arrangement. The country needs a stable, competent government which would last the full term of five years, not a temporary weak administration, subjected to weekly assaults on the floor of the Dáil designed to provoke hot-headed Independents. For all the big talk of "new politics", there will be no let-up from Sinn Féin and other protest parties. Fianna Fáil, too, will be fomenting trouble, particularly in the absence of a written agreement and given the evident bad blood between the two parties.

Eight weeks ago today the people voted. These talks need a chair and a deadline. Fianna Fáil needs to realise if it is not in government, it will not get its way on policy. If Fine Gael has to cave in on a range of major policy areas such as water, tax and housing in order to form a minority government, it will not really be in government, but just a puppet for others. Another election, therefore, may be preferable to settling for such a compromised and emasculated administration.

As with an overworked painting, sometimes one needs a fresh canvas to start over again. Next time, people should be more discerning and vote for those who have the courage to govern. That should separate the men from the boys.

Irish Independent

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