Tuesday 25 October 2016

The chances of giving ourselves good governance are as remote as ever

Published 14/08/2015 | 02:30

'Michael McGrath, often spoken of as a future contender for the Fianna Fail leadership, envisages a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition'
'Michael McGrath, often spoken of as a future contender for the Fianna Fail leadership, envisages a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition'

Chief whips seldom speak in public. They know a great deal but say very little. Their job is to keep the show on the road, not to make dramatic or controversial assertions.

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The current Government Chief Whip, Paul Kehoe, is typical of the profession. It was therefore a surprise when he decided to open his mouth, and a bigger surprise when he put his foot in it.

Not that he said anything startling when he suggested that Enda Kenny might serve two full terms as Taoiseach and part of a third. Many prime ministers serve more than two terms. Many, indeed, secretly or not so secretly, long for more. But third and later terms are seldom successful.

Charles J Haughey once noted that Chinese leaders tended to stay in office until their eighties. Everybody assumed - rightly, I am sure - that he wanted to emulate them. He hastily denied that he had any such ambition.

Margaret Thatcher wished, in her own words, to "go on and on". That was an unwise thing to say in any circumstances, particularly for a leader whose popularity was crashing. She ignored the writing on the wall. Until the last moment, she insisted that she would "fight on". She resigned the following day.

I don't believe that "Endless Enda" harbours similar ambitions. He knows he will be lucky to get a second term, never mind a third. If he does remain in office after the coming General Election, he will retire at some stage during his second term.

What are his chances? The short answer: better than anyone else's.

According to Ruairi Quinn, a good judge of these matters, the election will be held in February. Very well. What will happen between now and February?

We know one thing for certain. There will be a Budget in October. It will be constructed with only one thing in mind - the election. That means popular measures, like tax cuts.

But the Government has very little money to play around with. Let's say €1.5bn, a drop in the budgetary ocean. And who can tell what may happen between now and October, and between October and February? How many unexpected "events" will occur? How many unresolved controversies may raise their heads again?

And who will form the new government? This week we heard the views of two people whom we have to take seriously.

Michael McGrath, often spoken of as a future contender for the Fianna Fail leadership, envisages a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition. Presumably he would look with at least equal favour on a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition.

Brian Hayes, Fine Gael's brightest spark, resurrects the hoary proposal of a "voting pact" with Labour. I greatly doubt the value of voting pacts. So, it seems, does he. He proposes a joint policy statement, based on no more than half a dozen "principles".

More than one obstacle stands in the way of achieving that aim. Assuming that both parties have principles, are they compatible? Can they be made credible? More to the point, electorally speaking, can Labour win enough Dáil seats to give them a place in government? To judge by the opinion polls, they can not.

Of course the numbers can be made up by independents and minor parties. It has happened before. But most voters would regard it as highly unpalatable.

There is another option, albeit one with which few of us would feel comfortable.

I think I was the first journalist to describe Sinn Féin as resembling a cult more than a normal political party. A better comparison might be with the extreme, and growing, right-wing parties in countries like Hungary.

Sinn Féin themselves like to be called left-wing. They can point to their economic policies, but in reality these only mix the populist with the nonsensical. And few people take any notice of them. For most people, "Sinn Féin" means a murky history and a false narrative which pretends that they have spent their lives fighting for peace.

Some in Fianna Fáil, still clinging to outdated notions, try to claim that they have something in common with Sinn Féin. Were Fianna Fáil to fall for this argument, it would be ruinous. I don't think we have to worry about a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition - for the moment, anyway.

We do need to worry about lack of leadership and the dreadful (and worsening) state of a political system which has no concept of reward and punishment and little regard for the quality of the candidates who will soon stand for election. The governing parties thought they had an ace in their hands in the form of the recovery, and a second when they set up the banking inquiry. The aim in the second case was to attribute all the blame for the economic crash to Fianna Fáil. The first may still work, but the second has failed. Fianna Fáil have come out of the inquiry looking rather better than when they went in.

That makes a weird contrast with the judicial tribunals.

These are mostly regarded as failures. But they revealed malpractices and recommended reforms - though few reforms ensued. To judge by the evidence, and most of all the questioning, at the banking inquiry, it might seem that no malpractice had occurred at all. Yet every member had lived through the relevant events and experienced their consequences.

Just one more sign of the awful truth. After the election, we will give ourselves some kind of government. But our chances of giving ourselves good governance are as remote as ever.

Irish Independent

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