Kenny must play hardball with Independents because we badly need a government now
Published 03/05/2016 | 02:30
It is, sadly, more déjà vu than 'new', politics right now. For all the unique make-up of the 32nd Dáil, there remains a depressing sense that we've been here before.
For the abolition, sorry "suspension", of water charges, read Fianna Fáil's scrapping of rates in 1977. Or the decision on the eve of an election two decades later by Labour - yes, Minister Kelly, wholesome, 'only in the national interest' Labour - to end the requirement for all new homes to have a water meter installed.
The sweetheart deals with Independents, meanwhile, have been done on countless occasions before, most famously with Charlie Haughey's 1982 'Gregory Deal'. The stand-out item from the current 'pork barrel' list of demands is an unnamed TD's request that the government explore options for getting from the West to Dublin Airport without using the motorways. Where do you start with that one?
And we've even had the prospect of a new 'benchmarking' process for public servants. If there was one policy that best captured the collective madness that took hold during the Celtic Tiger, it was benchmarking. Could we really be about to make the same mistake again?
Perhaps with talk of "new politics", we're aiming too high. At this stage, most people would settle for a government. But to be fair to Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin, they cut through 90 years of fairly poisonous history to come to an arrangement (albeit a less-than-ideal one). Despite the laughably simplistic calls for them "to just get on with it" from some quarters, that wasn't an easy thing to do.
However, now the Independents are playing to hard to get. If there has been a coherent strategy from the various Independents since the General Election result, it's hard to see what it is. Is there a plan there? Katherine Zappone, Denis Naughten and perhaps a couple of others aside, do they want to be in government? Or are they, to borrow a line from Monty Python, "making it up as they go along".
We can only assume that the Independent Alliance won't actually refuse to go into government over John Halligan's demand for cardiac services in Waterford. If they do, it would be an extraordinary case of grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. Halligan, an impressive TD and a decent individual, clearly feels he needs to take a stand on this issue. But it would beggar belief if his Alliance colleagues scorned the one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make history over this issue.
That couldn't be further from 'new politics'.
Leo Varadkar's statement over the weekend on the issue cut to the heart of the matter. Resources for health are finite and "decisions on where specialist and regional centres are located should be made following an expert clinical review ... not as a consequence of a political deal".
Decisions on health are far too critical to be left to political horse-trading. A rubicon was rightly crossed in that regard when Professor Tom Keane - backed up politically by Brian Cowen and Mary Harney - faced down local pressure groups to introduce the centres of excellence for cancer care.
The decision by the last government to close the 24-hour emergency department at Roscommon Hospital was another example of patient safety being put before political expediency.
It has taken us a long time as a country to get to that point. If Fine Gael caves in in relation to Waterford Hospital, it would represent a return to the bad old days when such decisions were routinely bottled. It's impossible to see how Varadkar could stand over that, particularly given his statement at the weekend.
Of course, compromises are required to form a government. We've seen that already. And the Independents have a right to drive a hard bargain - they would be foolish not to. But there has to be a limit to how far Fine Gael will go.
And if some Independents are looking for too much, Kenny and co should move on without them.
There's much talk about 58 being the magic figure to form a government, because of Fianna Fáil's commitment to abstain.
But a strong signal from the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the Labour Party that they would also abstain in the vote for Taoiseach, to responsibly allow a government be formed, would change the arithmetic considerably.
If that happened, Mr Kenny already has the numbers to secure his re-election. It would clearly be preferable to have some Independents at cabinet level.
This would broaden the pool of talent - Denis Naughten in particular would make a fine Minister, and there are others - and give the government greater comfort when it comes to crucial votes.
However, given what's we have learned about some (though not all) of the Independents' demands, it's not in the national interest for them to have the whip hand.
In the early 1960s, Seán Lemass ran a minority government (albeit one just a few seats shy of a majority) on the basis of 'no deals' with Independents and an approach to the opposition that was the political equivalent of 'have a go if you think you're hard enough'. Faced with the prospect of causing a General Election, the Dáil lasted four years.
We badly need a government. Ideally this week. And a similar approach from Enda Kenny might just focus some minds among Independent TDs.
Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on newstalk.com at 10am