Sunday 23 October 2016

Testing the patience of public with long drawn out talks merely adds fuel to fire

Published 11/07/2014 | 02:30

Tanaiste Joan Burton and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Damien Eagers
Tanaiste Joan Burton and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Damien Eagers

LIKE the Labour leadership campaign, the negotiations for a new government programme have gone on too long. Let's remind ourselves of their supposed purpose and their real purpose.

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The supposed purpose is to renew the competence and vigour of the Cabinet and junior ranks. Admirable – and necessary. After more than three years of life-or-death struggle, ministers are worn out. The first half of this year was a story of drift and clumsy mistakes.

The real purpose is to put Fine Gael and Labour in a position to win the next general election.

For the last seven months, that has looked like an impossible dream. The Coalition seemed headed for a breakup or an electoral disaster, or both. The European and local elections told a tale. They suggested near-death for Labour. They also suggested that Fine Gael could lose its status as the country's biggest party.

And now the budding economic recovery, though real, remains fragile.

Too much of the power to turn hope into substance is out of our hands. Too much depends on European and world conditions. As we saw this week, money markets are easily spooked by adverse events in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The Government therefore has to proceed with great caution and determination. Today, presumably, we will find out if the reshuffle demonstrates these qualities.

But to judge by the flimsy indications to date, we have no guarantee that caution and determination will be accompanied by a third essential quality, imagination.

We know one thing. The Fine Gael-Labour negotiations have featured the old-fashioned horse trading that has always plagued Irish politics. Both parties have engaged in them with good will and (in fairness) patriotic motives, but also with self-serving and sometimes mysterious ambitions.

Oddly enough, that has little to do with the vastly different personalities and life experiences of the two main players, Enda Kenny and Joan Burton.

They epitomise Old Fine Gael and Old Labour.

The way they express that borders on the comical.

Ms Burton was always sure to seek the Enterprise Department for Alan Kelly, the ultimate "coming man". Mr Kenny was equally certain to take as conservative an approach as possible.

They have this in common that they are canny politicians, well able to play the power game. But will their expertise suffice to turn the Coalition's fortunes around in, let's say, 18 months?

It was a mistake to let the negotiations drag on so long. Have they forgotten how disgruntled and suspicious the electorate have become?

Many people see the delays as evidence of dithering and uncertainty.

Assuredly they do not indicate any arrival of energetic "new politics". We will see an example of old politics if the Taoiseach, as expected, nominates Phil Hogan to the European Commission.

Mr Hogan is another canny operator, and for Mr Kenny an invaluable mainstay.

Nobody knows how well suited he may be to Brussels.

Previous Irish commissioners have varied from the superb to the appalling.

Some were given the appointment simply to get them out of the way. This time, it would be a reward for an old friend and ally.

Loyalty is a great virtue, much valued – though not always practised – in Ireland. In Fianna Fail's case in particular, it often looked like the only virtue that mattered.

But this is no time to be handing out plums.

If the nomination takes place, Mr Kenny will lose a useful man.

That is the Taoiseach's problem. The country has a bigger problem.

The Government should view the reshuffle as an opportunity, not a chore.

Mr Kenny and his ministers inevitably look to the general election. They should also look to the future: a future far beyond any single election.

The Taoiseach will be judged, in part, by his decision on the fate of the Health Minister, Dr James Reilly. But that is a trifle compared with the fate of the service. To repair and make it fit for the needs of the population must be the work of 10 years or more.

The same is true in other areas, like the arts. It matters little whether or not Jimmy Deenihan keeps his job. It matters greatly how we view the spectacular opportunities in "cultural tourism".

A minority, highbrow interest? Not at all. Country music is as much a part of the cultural scene as the works of James Joyce.

But while our leaders deliberated this week, the Garth Brooks fiasco gave us daily shocks.

So much confusion, so much disappointment – and so much loss of money.

Mr Kenny, in the midst of his other preoccupations, tried to help. Rightly, when he saw another example of our public authorities shooting themselves in the foot.

This week's talks may save his coalition. But will they make any difference to the way Ireland is governed?

James Downey

Irish Independent

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