Friday 28 October 2016

Minority Government is in peril as Ireland now faces its own 'winter of discontent'

Published 08/09/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has a battle on his hands. Pic: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has a battle on his hands. Pic: Tom Burke

Take your pick from bus drivers, gardaí, secondary school teachers and, potentially, train drivers - there's a whole heap of industrial relations problems coming down the line for the Government. And there's a big question mark over whether it has the strength, and the bottle, to handle it.

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Comparisons with Britain's infamous Winter of Discontent of 1978/79 might seem over the top. The turmoil 38 years ago was on a different scale, with virtually the entire public sector up in arms as wages chased inflation. Corpses went unburied and bins piled up on the streets. But the political ramifications may not prove to be so different. Jim Callaghan's minority Labour government's re-election hopes were scuppered by those strikes. The belief it was out of touch, and had lost control of events, helped propel Margaret Thatcher to power.

Fine Gael and the Independents need to be very careful not to allow a similar perception to develop here.

In that respect, they have two particular problems. The first is their hands are largely tied in the various disputes. The Dublin Bus strike is a serious embarrassment. But calls for Transport Minister Shane Ross to get involved ignore the reality that the days of such ministerial interventions are long gone. For good reason. The semi-states are commercially independent companies and any intercession by a minister would cut the boots from underneath management and create a disastrous precedent.

In relation to the claims of the ASTI teachers and gardaí, the Government has to operate within the terms of the Lansdowne Road Agreement, which the two other teaching unions and indeed the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors have voted to accept.

Dealing with the ASTI's demands is going to be hugely difficult. The secondary school teaching union seems to be opening up a war on three different fronts with the Government, rejecting Lansdowne which actually would have put money back in the pockets of its members for the first time in years. There are no easy solutions to any of these disputes. The bus drivers' pay demands look excessive and outside the range of pay increases being given across the economy. But there's no denying the award given to Luas drivers does set a precedent of sorts. Rank-and-file gardaí also have a real sense of grievance. All of these disputes demand attention.

But perhaps the bigger problem facing the Government is the general feeling that this is a hamstrung administration serving its time until it inevitably collapses in disarray.

The flakiness of some of the Independent ministers doesn't help. Barely a week seems to go by without some story involving John Halligan and his difficulty with some element of Government policy.

Shane Ross can't intervene in the bus dispute, but it doesn't help that he hasn't met either management or the unions since becoming minister. Let's be clear, it wouldn't make one whit of a difference to the actuality of resolving the dispute. As a canny PR performer, Ross must surely understand that the optics look bad.

His comment on 'The Late Late Show' that Transport is a "doddle" has not done much for his case. That unfortunately did have echoes with the notorious "Crisis? What crisis?" quote attributed to Jim Callaghan at the height of the Winter of Discontent. Of course, Ross didn't mean it literally. Of course, he was saying it to highlight how unexpectedly difficult the sport side of his brief was proving to be because of the Olympics. Of course, he was speaking in jest.

But, he's not a backbench TD anymore. He's the Transport Minister. And with a bus strike looming, he couldn't afford to be so glib. Poor Callaghan was also being jocular when he gave his press conference on his return from a summit abroad that gave rise to the infamous "Crisis? What crisis?" 'Sun' front-page headline. He never actually said that. And it wasn't remotely fair. But it stuck.

And speaking of 'Crisis? What crisis?', Michael Noonan's utter failure to anticipate the magnitude of the Apple ruling has raised question marks about his appetite for the fray.

Noonan was the single most important figure in the last government - a hugely competent and calming presence in difficult times. But, as we fast approach the 34th anniversary of his first Cabinet appointment, some in Leinster House are privately questioning his decision not to bow out of Cabinet in May.

And, clearly, question marks also hang over Enda Kenny, who surely cannot stay on as Taoiseach beyond Christmas.

The Government may be barely four months in office, but already there's a real sense that it needs freshening up.

It's time for the baton to be passed to the new generation of Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, Simon Harris, Paschal Donohoe and Regina Doherty.

Because of the doubts dover Kenny and Noonan, allied to the windiness of some of the Independent ministers, only add to the sense of a caretaker Government. And we all know the line about nature abhorring a vacuum.

The country has come a long way in the past five years.

The economic news is generally very positive. But there are massive challenges in the shape of Brexit, the Apple ruling and - more immediately - public sector strikes.

And these challenges require strong government - not one stumbling from crisis to crisis or even content to simply tread water until an inevitable election in a year or two. Whither that strong government now?

Irish Independent

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