Wednesday 27 March 2019

For Labour, everything now rests on the recovery continuing throughout 2015

Never mind Fine Gael versus Sinn Fein, figuring out who will be the next junior partner in government is the real challenge

Jack O'Connor
Jack O'Connor

Willie Kealy

Labour deputies and senators must feel very torn this weekend. On the one hand, they probably have a visceral feeling that they'd like to kick over the traces and storm out of Government over some very important point of principle that would wash them clean of the taint of coalition that has brought them so low in the polls. Efforts by trade union leader Jack O'Connor and Labour deputy Joanna Tuffy could be seen as actively encouraging them in that direction.

On the other hand, it is probably much more tempting to keep the head down, watch the paint of the slowly recovering economy dry, and hope that by the beginning of next year, we will all feel a little better off when we put our hands in our pockets to fumble with the loose change.

The next general election will be a first. It will be the first time that no party will go before the electorate expecting or even hoping for an overall majority. Last time out, Fine Gael were going for broke and damn near made it. This time we will not be picking the government when we cast our votes, we will be picking coalition partners. The polls tell us that the senior partner in government will be either Fine Gael or Sinn Fein. Well, that's hardly a surprise. Even Fianna Fail don't think it will be Fianna Fail, and Labour won't be ordering any "Burton for Taoiseach" posters. But just who will be the junior partner is as tantalising as trying to work out the name of the next taoiseach. Cynics say it is impossible to know, because everything party leaders say about future coalition options is meaningless. When the votes are counted, they will do what the figures demand. Of course, this will be in the interest of stable government, not in the interest of getting into power at any price.

But maybe not. Maybe we should try taking them at their word. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (except John McGuinness and Eamon O Cuiv) are adamant they will not serve with each other or with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein swear they will only go into government if they can be the largest party, and they're not keen on either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. This leaves Labour in the enviable position of being the only potential junior partner that no other party has ruled out.

There is little doubt that Labour has suffered from being in Government. They have been dominated by a Fine Gael party that has been responsible for more cock-ups than can be accounted for by mere bad luck. Labour has been subservient and when they have tried to assert themselves - such as when Brendan Howlin spoke in favour of restoring public service pay cuts - it has been on the wrong issues. The sale of Aer Lingus is another Labour issue which would have been better left alone. Though it was a Fine Gael minister, Paschal Donohoe, who was sent out to do battle, there is no doubt that the impetus is coming from Labour, claiming that we will lose connectivity and jobs - someone astutely pointed out that the only jobs really in danger if Aer Lingus is sold are those of seven north Dublin Labour TDs.

For most of this Government's term of office, Labour has failed to act like a Labour Party, but then for most of the life of this Government, Labour in Cabinet mostly meant Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn, more-than-middle-aged men, whose main focus was not necessarily on the next election. So there was a clear-out and Joan Burton got a chance to come into her own, and the young and energetic Alan Kelly was made a minister and deputy leader. There was an immediate improvement in the party's poll performance, but it didn't last. The sky-high expectations of a beaten-down electorate were always going to be hard to meet, and the steady grind of improving the economy doesn't lend itself to many sound bites or photo opportunities.

Enda Kenny spelled out his party's position when he said there would be "a clear choice between moving forward or risking the country's progress to those who wrecked it in the past, or those whose policies would wreck our future". He caused a flurry of speculation when he concentrated his attacks over the last 10 days on Fianna Fail rather than Sinn Fein. Could he have done this deliberately as a secret signal to Gerry Adams that if all came to all, he would accept him as a junior partner? I doubt it. James Reilly may not be health minister any more, but he's still Enda's deputy leader and one of his few close allies left in Cabinet. He made it clear last week that Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail are both unacceptable coalition partners for Fine Gael.

And how about this from the Fine Gael leader-in-waiting, Leo Varadkar: "Others left Fine Gael when decisions had to be made. Labour stuck with it through thick and thin. I am proud to serve with Labour in Government. Ireland is a better place because they are in coalition with Fine Gael." Joan Burton was equally warm about Fine Gael, so first choice by a country mile for both parties is a return of the Fine Gael / Labour coalition with, as Michael Noonan says, the support of a few centre-right Independents, if necessary. And if it takes some form of pre-election pact between the two Government parties to get them back in office, there is support for that too. Alan Kelly says he would not demur, though Michael McNamara would.

But even if Enda was having bad thoughts about Sinn Fein, remember, Gerry Adams is not interested in being anyone's junior. And can you really see Enda Kenny as Gerry Adams's batman? But let's suppose Sinn Fein was willing to play second fiddle to Fine Gael, how could the enormous gap between their economic policies be bridged? It seems impossible. Some political commentators (and that Davy's report last weekend) point to the fact that up North Sinn Fein do things differently, implementing Tory policies directly opposite to what they espouse in the Republic; so probably they would do an about-turn here too. Well, I for one, am prepared to take Gerry Adams at his word. He won't go into Government as a junior partner and he won't change his dysfunctional economic policies for anyone - not even in the manner of Greece's new Syriza government, which are now "renaming fish as meat without changing the actual situation", according to one of their own veteran MEPs.

No, Sinn Fein will wait its turn, convinced that the discontent with "normal" politics will grow and grow to the point where they will get their mandate to govern. For a while there, Sinn Fein, despite all the scandals, had a fair wind behind them, as revolution took off in Greece and looked like it might spread to Spain, Italy and eventually, Ireland. But that wind has evaporated, and anyway we were never as badly off as the unfortunate Greeks. This time out, doing to Fianna Fail what they did to the SDLP, and in the process becoming the main Opposition, is probably the limit of their ambition.

The election could happen at any time, and all the parties on an election footing. But the chances now are - barring an "event" - this Government will run its full term. There have been no cock-ups lately because ministers are largely keeping their mouths shut and just working and watching the figures - growth, tax returns, exports, employment - and planning for the best they can do in the next Budget in October. That's a sensible policy. It's a sane approach. It's the best chance for Fine Gael.

And for Labour, it's the only chance.

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