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Coalition won't survive another culture clash


SUPPOSE you drew up a table of current political issues, ranked in order of importance from 100 to zero. Obviously the economy would score 100. At how much would you rate stag hunting? Five per cent? Ten per cent?

Yet it is the right or otherwise of a small group of (mostly rich) people to chase stags across the fields of Meath and North Dublin that has destabilised the Fianna Fail-Green Coalition and almost brought down the Government.

Ridiculous? Not really. As Albert Reynolds famously remarked, "it's the little things that trip you up".

But there is more, much more, to this week's rumpus than the decision to put the Ward Union Hunt out of business. There is a grain of truth, if only a grain, in the "thin end of the wedge" argument. Not even the Greens will try to ban shooting and fishing, and the demise of the Ward Union will not destroy our very important, and very valuable, bloodstock industry. But the opponents of the Stag Hunting Bill rightly identify it as part of a dislike of rural sports in general.

Rightly, too, they question the motives behind it. They regard the Greens as spoilsports, less interested in protecting animals than in depriving people of their pleasure.

They must not take this too far. I don't know anyone who wants to bring back bear-baiting or to legalise cock-fighting (the latter, though long since banned, still survives in some places). By the same token, you don't hear much about banning factory farming, because we want cheap meat and we want to compete in export markets.

But there is here an intriguing example of the urban-rural divide, combined with a deep dislike of the party that exemplifies it.

Since the Greens entered the Coalition three years ago, they have made themselves unloved in numerous quarters. To myself and many others, they appear to have taken on several of the less agreeable Fianna Fail characteristics, usually summed up in the single word arrogance. Certainly their naked lust for office and perks rivals that of their partners.

That, however, is not how the Fianna Fail backbenchers view them. They see them as snooty spoilsports, tolerable only because they have the power to break the Coalition and precipitate a general election with devastating results.

The backbenchers have plenty of reasons for discontent. Chief among these, of course, is the threat to their seats at the election. Besides, like the rest of us, they are perplexed by the questions of how we ever got into our present fix and how, if at all, we can get out of it. It was inevitable that these simmering emotions would surface at some time, on some issue big or small.

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Meanwhile, the coolest objective observer cannot but note the Greens' failures on the questions that should be of the greatest concern to them -- and should be answered with relative ease.

In their heartland, the suburbs of south Dublin -- which is also home to the country's most ruthless voters -- you can have your nostrils assailed at any point between Ringsend and Blackrock by the smell from a sewerage plant. A little farther on, on beautiful Killiney Hill, you can't enjoy the scenery because you have to keep your eyes on the path. Has anybody ever seen a dog warden? Come to that, has anybody ever seen a citizen carrying a pooper-scooper, a common sight in other countries?

The party leader, John Gormley, has delayed the construction of a waste incinerator in his Dublin South East constituency. His party has not put forward any plausible alternative.

The Greens want us to become world leaders in renewable energy. They want to cover the country with wind turbines. They will have no truck with nuclear power. Yet we import electricity, partly generated by nuclear power, from Britain. An Irish solution to an Irish problem, you might call it.

If they can't get it right in their back yard, they won't convince us that they can get it right when it comes to something gigantic like, let's say, saving a planet.

But if the Coalition does come crashing down -- and it is noteworthy that talk of an autumn General Election has replaced the opinion that the Government could last another two years -- those issues will have little or nothing to do with the collapse. It will fall because it cannot withstand indefinitely its fragile parliamentary situation combined with a culture clash, or rather, more than one culture clash.

And the culture clash is not confined to Fianna Fail. We saw a little touch of it in the failed heave on the other side of the House. Fine Gael was too polite to say it publicly, but Enda Kenny's lads privately gloated over putting down the dissidents, whom they viewed as including people they considered bumptious, too big for their boots.

These dissidents are now "former dissidents", chastened and swearing oaths to party unity. Brian Cowen has more to fear from a breakdown of Fianna Fail's far-famed (though much exaggerated) loyalty. And he can't save his party, or the Greens, by taking sides in the culture clash. The General Election will be won and lost in urban constituencies, where hardly anybody gives a hoot about the Ward Union Hunt and everybody cares about jobs for their children.


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