Thursday 29 September 2016

Keeping the strands from fraying will be a tough task in Government tug of war

Published 14/05/2016 | 02:30

Micheál Martin (right) and Fianna Fáil deserve credit for playing a significant role in finding a solution to the impasse, leaving Enda Kenny (left) to get on with the job of respecting the voice of the voter. Photo credit: Barbara Lindberg.
Micheál Martin (right) and Fianna Fáil deserve credit for playing a significant role in finding a solution to the impasse, leaving Enda Kenny (left) to get on with the job of respecting the voice of the voter. Photo credit: Barbara Lindberg.

Well, we were expecting all sorts in the 32nd Dáil, but this confection is even more of a mixed bag than anticipated, giving us plenty to chew on.

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People were getting hot under the collar that it took almost a quarter of a year to put it together. But politics is not a lucky dip, it's about weighing up options. Think of the child in the sweet shop with one euro in their pocket: there's a bewildering assortment to choose from - the trick is to get as many as you can of the ones that will last the longest.

Throw in a few toffees and a gob-stopper or two, and then there are the ones that dissolve almost immediately...

You see, even that little fella or girl needs a strategy when you can't afford the complete selection box.

So all things considered, Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin have done their best given the hugely complex circumstances before them.

The imperative now is to respect the voice of the voter and to see that these diverse strands are spun into something that can survive the tug of war that the business of government demands.

And one of the lessons of the necessarily long haul to put a government together is that parties should have their master plan worked out well in advance of the election.

The days of large majorities are off the agenda for now. But I would give Mr Martin credit for being responsible by playing a significant role in finding a solution. The Fianna Fáil party was never going to agree on going into government on the basis of 'a turn, and turn about, Taoiseach plan'.

Nonetheless, there have been no major political decisions taken since last September when the prospect of a poll was first raised. Still, the job is done now, and I for one would not gripe about how long it took. The trick is to guarantee that it keeps going, and that will require a great deal of hard work.

Mr Kenny had a tough task. And frankly, Sinn Féin people spoke a lot of nonsense about their reasons for not getting involved or taking their responsibilities as a major grouping in the Dáil more seriously. You can't keep saying no and then claim to be forward-looking.

As I would see it, the old days of big majorities are on hold for now; but if Fianna Fáil plays its hand as best it can, and makes a positive contribution, it could reap the benefits.

Who knows, it could return with up to 70 seats, but that is probably for another day.

For the moment, all parties would do well to think about the configuration of future Dáils when drawing up their next election plans. It is instructive to think that in about two-and-a-half years, which incidentally, I believe will be about the life-span of this Dáil, it will be 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin by then really ought to be in a position to be more progressive and less insular.

By contrast, Fianna Fáil has done entirely the right thing for the party, for the Government and the country.

Mr Martin has delivered on two pledges: to return as the leader of the Opposition, and also not to go into Government.

And he is absolutely the leader of the Opposition; Sinn Féin did not reach its target. Certainly that party will try to confuse and confound at every opportunity. Some see it as playing a sniper's role, taking pot-shots at everything, but that won't really pay off.

Remember, what Fianna Fáil has agreed to do is not to vote against the Government on the Budget.

The critical point is that it is not linked to or constrained by Government policy. The party can play a constructive as opposed to an obstructive role. It can hold the Government to account through the confidence and supply arrangement subject to the explicit details in the appendices.

I do feel that this Government can achieve fixed goals with a sharp focus on what is attainable in the short term at least.

But when I hear new Health Minister Simon Harris talking about a 10-year plan, I have to wonder. Nobody knows what manner of government will be in situ a decade from now.

They must zone in on what is immediately definable and doable, and prioritise accordingly.

And much can be done even within a time-frame of 30 months. Yet there are unique aspects to this Government and they must be managed from the beginning. Both as chief whip of Fianna Fáil and as Taoiseach, I was intimately involved in both putting and holding coalitions together. The difference was that they all either involved the support of parties or else of like-minded individuals.

Mr Kenny has neither. Katherine Zappone and Finian McGrath could not be said to be cut from the same cloth, nor indeed Shane Ross.

Making a pact with a party is one thing, trying to cope with the vagaries of personalities and individual agendas is quite another.

So I hope Chief Whip Regina Doherty has a few lifebelts available, as she'll need them in case anyone goes overboard.

The passage will be bouncy. Yet one bit of advice I would impart is that solidarity depends on collective responsibility and inclusivity.

The Cabinet must be run from the Cabinet table and not by Cabinet committee. All must be on board and on the same page.

That needs managing and work but the voters have given them a task and they have the honour and duty of fulfilling it.

The priorities will be to keep on reducing debt-to-GDP, keep trimming tax and protect welfare.

Health and homelessness have to be tackled too, as the human cost taken by both is unacceptable.

On the industrial front, pressures are building up that will require imaginative and assured handling.

There was an initial joke that the 32nd Dáil would be exactly that, and survive for about 30 seconds.

This is wrong - it has to work.

All those fortunate enough to be part of it must make sure that they look after the interests of the people who put them in there.

It is expecting too much to imagine it serving a full term. But that should only serve as a spur for getting things done, not avoiding them. Putting a padlock on policy because it will be difficult to get agreement will lead to paralysis, which is the enemy of good governance. There is a big job at hand, so best to get on with it.

Irish Independent

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