News Shane Coleman

Saturday 20 September 2014

Parking tricky issues like pylons until after the elections? Sir Humphrey would approve

Published 31/01/2014 | 02:30

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The British comedy ‘Yes Minister’ in which Sir Humphrey, right, always tried to stymie his idealistic minister, James Hacker, centre. PA

FOR those of a certain age, observing the Coalition this week was like watching an episode of 'Yes Minister', the BBC's brilliantly satirical political comedy from the 1980s.

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Only this time the joke is on us.

The Government's long-fingering of both the pylons issue and the contentious Legal Services Bill was classic 'Sir Humphrey' – the technocratic, senior civil servant who saw it as his job to stymie his idealistic minister and maintain the status quo, regardless of the cost.

Sir Humphrey had a "12-stage delaying process" to slow any initiative until after the next election. That process involved discussions, proposals, studies and then more discussions, revised proposals and new studies, implementation plans and revised implementation plans, and so on.

Sound familiar? It should, because however much ministers might deny it, that's pretty much what the Government has done with pylons and the multi-disciplinary legal practices.

Faced with two contentious and tricky issues, the Coalition did what governments have done for decades – they kicked the can down the road. Or to put it another way, they bottled it.

Is this the shape of things to come? The goal of exiting the bailout has been achieved. That involved the Government, to its considerable credit, decisively making difficult decisions.

But with the 'crisis' over, there is a sense Fine Gael and Labour are now focused largely on the upcoming local elections – and beyond that the general election – and doing nothing that might jeopardise their chances in those elections.

That is deeply worrying. One of the reasons we got into the mess we did was because Fianna Fail made decisions with a view to winning the next election and not because they were the right ones. And with the recovery as fragile as it is, we simply can't afford a 'do-nothing, offend-nobody'-type government.

This Coalition promised it would be different – a fresh start from the failed politics of years past. The last few days suggests otherwise. There are other causes for concern. The Irish Water story is the HSE Mark II. The legislative programme is looking pretty light. The Government is becoming a little accident-prone and tensions are definitely growing between the two coalition partners.

It's almost as if having exited the bailout, the Coalition – stuck in crisis mode – doesn't know what to do next.

A few weeks back the Taoiseach was rock solid on pylons, declaring the infrastructure was crucial for job creation. Last week, he and his Government went into reverse gear.

They set up an "expert panel to set the terms of reference for studies looking at the feasibility of putting the Grid Link and Grid West underground" – something they've insisted all along isn't viable.

As if that wasn't 'Yes Minister' enough, the Taoiseach then asked the panel to ensure "parity of treatment" for the North-South interconnector, which is almost at planning stage and has already been analysed by a commission of experts.

Parity of treatment? When a government starts borrowing phrases from the Northern Ireland peace talks lexicon, it's time to get worried. When you're waffling, you're losing.

But it was on the one-stop shops for legal services that matters really descended into farce. Fine Gael wants solicitors, barristers and accountants to be allowed group into practices to improve competition and bring down prices. Labour, the party of the worker, isn't so keen. It caused a huge row at Cabinet.

Compromise was obviously required. We got fudge. The Government is to proceed with the overall Legal Services Bill, but with a whopper of an asterisk applied. The new legal affairs regulator will hold a six-month long consultation process on the one-stop shops bit of the legislation. It will then come back to the Cabinet for a decision, even though the bulk of the legislation will have been in place for at least a year at that point.

Given the regulator won't even be established until December at the earliest, there must be pretty low odds on no decision being taken on this before the 2016 general election.

It is now three years since Fine Gael/Labour produced its programme for government – and much of that has been implemented. But what are the goals of the Coalition now? What does it want to achieve over the next two years, other than getting re-elected?

The Government needs to produce some answers to that question or it, and potentially the country's recovery, will stagnate. The starting point for that could be a renegotiation of that programme for government. That would present challenges. Sir Humphrey wouldn't recommend it. But without it, everyone involved could be in for a long two years.

SHANE COLEMAN IS POLITICAL EDITOR OF NEWSTALK 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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