Government must be wary of the snakes that can undo its good work
Published 24/12/2013 | 02:30
As deputies escape Kildare Street to the bosom of their constituencies and neglected families, there will be time for reflection in the government ranks. They will slouch on sofas and stare into fires, relieved to be doing nothing after a ferocious year.
Many will succumb to the mysterious illness that descends on the busy once they stop work. It feels like a debilitating flu with fatigue and low mood. Politics, whether in government or opposition, is a draining business. Deputies live on adrenaline, in the full glare of media scrutiny and in a hostile and competitive work environment. Stamina and wellbeing are essential.
What is not widely known, and I suspect would not elicit much sympathy, is that many politicians become ill arising from the lifestyle and pressure of their work. I can count four ministers, including this writer, hospitalised during my time in Government. In my case, it was wholly stress-related. I was -- in colloquial terms -- "burned out".
Involvement in the protracted multi-party talks in Northern Ireland, though a huge privilege, took its toll on all the participants. We were mindful of the hand of history, as Blair memorably described it that Easter Friday, but the flip side of that was the fear of failure and more lives being lost. Ironically, that huge pressure helped key individual politicians to transcend their tribes and reach compromise.
Dr Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan are now striving to broker a deal on the thorny outstanding issues in Northern Irish politics. This time the deadline is Christmas rather than Easter. External media pressure and public expectations are high on the parties to compromise. And outsiders have helped in the past when it comes to moving from fixed and even treasured positions.
As a former minister, I can with some authority critique a political performance. Some ministers show no sign of strain; others are haggard. The star performers this year have undoubtedly been Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin. In opposition, Billy Kelleher of FF has done well marking the embattled health minister, and Mary Lou's star continues to rise.
I regularly find myself shouting at the telly at banalities and cliches. Regardless of party, I cannot abide fence sitters; those who because of electoral fear do not reveal their hand. How can deputies survive in safe party seats without ever expressing a strong view? The answer is of course the clientelist hinterland, which shapes Irish political culture and which, for all the talk of "political reform", endures. Ironically it is the opinionated deputy with a focus on national issues who is most vulnerable to the tyranny of the electorate and the wrath of the media. Being above the parapet makes one fair game.
Politics as a profession has taken a reputational hammering. The outcome of the 2011 election was an exercise in public retribution for perceived poor performance. Dozens of new deputies of all hues were elected with scant experience and lots to say. There followed procedural anarchy in the chamber as the Ceann Chomhairle battled to impose some order.
Independents and grievance-driven parties such as Sinn Fein and the "Looney Left" filled up the opposition benches alongside a depleted and demoralised Fianna Fail. The FG/Labour Government, with the comfort of a good majority, set about cleaning up the detritus of a collapsed economy.
Although tiresome, it is hard to blame the Government for banging on about the legacy it inherited. And by any measure the Coalition deserves credit for having taken the difficult and unpopular decisions to steady the ship of state. Success on the promissory note deal and Haddington Road has been tempered by FG defections over abortion and the top-ups controversy in charities and hospitals. However, exiting the bailout is undoubtedly an uplifting end to the year; the most recent poll rewards the Government with an 11 point rise in satisfaction rating.
Governments cannot expect to be popular when money is scarce and the troika is in town. Cuts in essential public services and wages, essential for our national recovery, have hit hard, but thanks to admirable social cohesion there has been no setting fire to cars, as in Greece.
Employment is the key challenge for the coming year. If the Government can stimulate even modest growth, a benign dynamic could emerge in this regard and get people back to work. But the electorate remains extremely volatile and quite capable of giving the Government another "wallop" in the local elections in 2014.
Being in government can be like a game of snakes and ladders. With the throw of a dice all the gains of the past year can be set at nought. Mutterings about systemic wrongdoing in NAMA look ominous and could be calamitous if true, not just for the Government but for Ireland's battered international reputation.