Wednesday 28 September 2016

Forming a stable government should be top of political agenda - not water row

Published 04/03/2016 | 02:30

Cartoonist: Scratch
Cartoonist: Scratch

One week on, the post-election landscape is not a pretty sight. Baffled citizens gaze at what seems like an unholy mess.

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Even worse, there is no sense of anyone in control to put shape on a new government. The dearth of leadership thus far is staggering.

Fine Gael, although still the largest party, is like a headless chicken, devoid of strategy. Defeated Fine Gael TDs are bitter and vengeful after a disastrous campaign. For Enda Kenny, the election outcome must be personally crushing. But at a wider level, there has been a dearth of leadership emanating from the stricken vessel that is Fine Gael. One hopes that some cohesion and strategy will emerge after the first meeting of the parliamentary party.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil is back to its old populist ways, bullishly refusing to countenance any grand alliance with Fine Gael while at the same time buying time and advantage with an uncharacteristic and newfound appetite for Dáil reform. If the party cannot lead a government with Micheál Martin as Taoiseach, its alternative strategy seems to be to ride two horses; being top dog in the Opposition while supporting a minority Fine Gael government. Such a minority government would be a leaky boat from the get-go, given the weakness of its mandate, and would be held to ransom by a rowdy and demanding Opposition, particularly if Dáil reforms are conceded. Neither would such a government be popular or reflective of the will of the people as expressed. It would be short-lived.

Given the responsibility of the two main parties to form a government, it is truly shocking that water charges and the abolition of Irish Water is dominating the agenda. Even for electoral gain, it was deeply irresponsible and populist of Fianna Fáil to backslide on its original support for water charges and a national utility to manage water and sewage quality. This, after all, was not a creature of the Troika-imposed austerity. It emanated from a European directive based on the environmental principle of the "polluter pays". Water is a precious but finite resource that has a value which should be paid for by users. To date, 61pc of households have paid the modest charge and for the first time, there is a national utility, compiling data, coordinating repairs and generally doing what should have been done years ago to provide safe water and sewage.

The cost of dismantling the utility at this stage and reversing the policy would be enormous, with estimates as high as €7bn, plus the likelihood of fines being imposed by Europe for non-compliance with the directive. Yet this is what Fianna Fáil is proposing. It is disgraceful behaviour for a party with long experience of government.

But as in a lover's tiff, it's not about the water. And there is a pair of them in it. Mr Kenny has bizarrely allowed water to be a red-line issue for Fine Gael too. It's hardly a good way to open discussions with "like-minded" parties to have a fixed, "fundamental" position on water services, of all things.

Some smart people in these parties should be drafting a compromise Programme for Government; it's all in the drafting. It should be possible to draft an agreement encompassing all the critical issues which need resolution and on which the election was fought.

Moreover, when it comes to priorities, most people would view the crisis in housing and the plight of homeless families and the problems in our health service as far more acute and compelling issues for government to address than a row over water charges. After a long radio silence, Bertie Ahern came back like an old timer to caution against hasty decisions on government formation. This could take until after Easter, he said authoritatively, and sure what harm? In a way, it was reassuring to hear his take on the whole business as a former Taoiseach of several governments, particularly given the disappearance of any grown-ups from the political stage. But at the same time, it left listeners feeling short-changed and holding tickets for a postponed fixture.

While these things take time, undue leisure is not desirable. Internationally, being without a stable government is not a good look for business and trade. And to be honest, it's a tad delusional to have Fine Gael and Labour ministers presiding over 1916 commemorative events and St Patrick's Day celebrations when they have been so roundly defeated.

Meanwhile the hard left and anti-austerity TDs seem more euphoric about "pulverising" the hapless Labour Party than anything else. Labour is down but not out and will rebuild its strength on the Opposition benches. The last-minute re-election of Willie Penrose was important for ensuring speaking time in the Dáil. But the defeat of deputies like Kathleen Lynch, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and others is a loss to politics. It's not personal; they suffered a fate common to all small parties in unpopular coalitions.

Despite the gloomy election outcome, one positive result is the election of 19 new female TDs, bringing the total number of women to 35. More than 22pc of the 32nd Dáil is female, compared to the 15pc elected in 2011. The increase is largely but not entirely down to the gender quota introduced for the first time in this election.

While controversial, it has worked. While some excellent female TDs lost their seats along with male colleagues last week, overall the outcome is still positive for female participation. The difference this time is that more women were on the ballot paper, offering more choice to the electorate. In all, there were 155 female candidates. The stubbornly low number of women in politics has been of concern for many years. When I was elected in 1992 there were 20 women; when I left politics in 2007 there were only 27. Progress was at a snail's pace.

The cohort of newly elected women is diverse; some are liberal, others conservative. Some are hard Left. But they all bring a common perspective based on their life experience as women and mothers. This will make our democratic institutions more representative. I wish the newly elected TDs, men and women, the very best in what looks like being a very exciting and more feminine 32nd Dáil.

Irish Independent

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