Tuesday 25 October 2016

Fine Gael's pork-barrel deal with the Independents should be published

Government is set to struggle on from crisis to crisis but little effective governance will take place over next two years

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

Independent Alliance TDs Shane Ross, Kevin Boxer Moran, Finnian McGrath, Sean Canning and John Halligan relax after a conference in the Coosan Cottage Hotel, Athlone. Photo: Tony Gavin
Independent Alliance TDs Shane Ross, Kevin Boxer Moran, Finnian McGrath, Sean Canning and John Halligan relax after a conference in the Coosan Cottage Hotel, Athlone. Photo: Tony Gavin

If anybody doubts the Government is built on a foundation of sand, they should cast their minds back a while to the wheeling and dealing surrounding the formation of this administration and have real cause for concern as to whether effective governing decisions will ever be taken between now and the next election.

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Perhaps this headline from the Sunday Independent of April 17 last will serve to remind: "Independents hold nation to €13bn ransom."

That headline led to howls of protest from Independents, and some in Fine Gael, who were appalled at the very suggestion.

As it happens, the €13bn ransom is equal to the amount said to be available to Ireland in back tax from the Apple Corporation.

Perhaps this further headline from April will also help: "Astonishing 'pork-barrel' list of demands exposed."

This is what a Fine Gael minister told me at the time, when the €13bn figure was put to him for confirmation: "I don't have the breakdown but that sounds about right."

He also said that one (named) Independent TD had asked that the full list of demands be circulated among them at a "plenary round-table meeting" to form the government. But somebody on the Fine Gael side - he could not remember who, but suggested it to be a current government minister - advised against it "in case it would cause embarrassment all round".

Now, let us consider what the Independent Alliance minister John Halligan had to say last week, on being told that a review had found there was no need for his pet project, a second catheterisation laboratory at University Hospital Waterford: "I'm being quite blunt with you on this, and they can deny it if they like, but I had witnesses with me - I had a barrister with me, going through the review - that Minister Noonan told me it was a formality, [but] that they couldn't be seen to be doing a special deal with a politician."

He also said that Simon Coveney had told him that if he did not sign up to support a Fine Gael-led government, that the Government would "deliver the cath-lab anyway". So, according to Halligan, he signed up in good faith. "I was honourable in signing up and I've been honourable with the Government up to now. They've been dishonourable with me."

It is a moot point whether such a backroom deal could remotely be described as honourable, with "embarrassment all round" to be avoided, and with these latest claims that Fine Gael was prepared to do such a deal, but aware that it "couldn't be seen to be doing such a special deal with a politician".

Fine Gael, it must be said, denies that any such deal was offered.Which should lead to a certain outcome: that the list of Independent TDs' demands and deals now be published. One among them wanted it to be circulated, but was persuaded otherwise because it could "cause embarrassment all round" - that is, to both Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance.

The list should now be published in full so that voters can be informed as to the type of pork-barrel politics underpinning this administration, and in order to form a judgement as to whether such a Government is what is really required at the moment - or ever - and to inform views when voters next come to decide.

That will not happen, of course - the publication of the pork-barrel list - unless there is a sustained demand for it to be published, because it is neither in the interests of Fine Gael or the Independents for it to happen; nor, truth be told, in the interests of any other political party or TD in the Dail, because nobody among them actually wants an election at the moment. But here is the question: aside from in Waterford, how many pork-barrel deals have been done that we have not and will never be told about - but which, if they were subjected to the same review as was the Waterford cat-lab deal, would not stand up to scrutiny? Scores, if not hundreds, is a good guess.

What are behind the scenes deals which could cause "embarrassment all round" if they came to light? In effect, the equivalent of the Apple back tax bartered over by a handful of politicians so that a Government could be formed.

It is my bet that if that list came to light, it would cause such a public outcry that an election would inevitably follow.

Now, here is why the list will not come to light; that is, why nobody in the Dail wants another election to be held at this stage. Fine Gael remains stuck with Enda Kenny and the party do not want to go into another election with him as leader. And in case you're wondering, he has no intention of going. This is what he is reported to have "quipped" to Brendan Griffin at a meeting of Fine Gael chairs of Oireachtas committees last week to outline a work programme until July, the Kerry TD having earlier this year called on him to step down as Fine Gael leader: Griffin, Enda said, "would be glad to hear, I'm going nowhere".

So, as far as Enda Kenny is concerned, Fine Gael is stuck with him until at least July, therefore, until the summer recess next year. This is as good as saying until the Budget next year, after which, well who knows? Maybe Enda will decide he quite fancies a further year, during which various pork-barrel deals will be implemented.

The Independent Alliance, meanwhile, or those most prominent among them, are enjoying their moment in the sun - "like the cats who got the cream," as an Independent TD told me last week.

More worrying for them, however, is that opinion polls have shown the tide to be going out on Independents, and if the pork-barrel list were to be published, they would be found by many to be caught with their trousers down.

Fianna Fail, at the moment, is a little like St Augustine: give us an election, Lord, but not yet. Micheal Martin is in a good position to be the next Taoiseach, but would like his party to first rise further in the polls, so it could return with 60 seats or more. Furthermore, he may find himself also stuck with a minority administration afterwards, so he needs new politics to work, or to at least appear to work. Also, having signed up for three years, he would like to be a man of his word. So as of now, three years it is.

Like Fine Gael, Sinn Fein is also stuck with a leader it does not want. And like the smaller far-left parties, and Independents in that space, the public's appetite for protest has waned now that water charges are off the agenda, although fulminations over the Apple back tax has the potential to channel that anger. So, all things considered, a budget will be cobbled together, the Government will struggle on from potential crisis to crisis, but little in terms of effective governance will take place over the next year or two. Maybe it's just as well.

Sunday Independent

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