Sunday 24 March 2019

Labour deserve more than FG platitudes

All of the political parties are ready and willing to share power

Gerry Adams, who along with all the SF TDs, does not socialise in the Dail.
Gerry Adams, who along with all the SF TDs, does not socialise in the Dail.
Ruth Coppinger TD
Senator John Whelan, pictured with Mary Gorman from Ballinakill, Co Laois outside Leinster House, laid down the battle lines to Sinn Fein at his recent selection convention.
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The most striking difference between Leinster House now and 10 years ago is that TDs and Senators work hard these days.

The second most evident thing is that little else has changed. Politicians are still politicians.

To say they are working hard is to go against popular opinion, or the national mood, which remains cynical to politics.

But they are at work, if not in the Dail chamber, then elsewhere; on Oireachtas committees, in their offices, or the environs of Kildare Street. They are sensitive to the mood of the country.

Despite what you may believe, or have heard, they are not holding up the Dail bar from one end of the week to the other.

This is an issue Sinn Fein has seized on, arising out of a couple of embarrassing incidents - Lapgate, and another assertion recently that TDs had drink taken during a late-night vote.

These incidents have been used to denigrate what the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has consistently referred to as 'The Establishment'.

The term was popularised by the British journalist Henry Fairlie in 1955. He did not only mean the centres of official power - though they were certainly part of it - but the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.

The exercise of power, he said, could not be understood unless it was recognised that it was exercised socially.

Sinn Fein makes a point of not socialising in the Dail; its TDs, Senators, officials and staff are under instruction not to - even Martin Ferris, the Kerry North TD and former gunrunner who used to socialise there 10 years ago.

It is said Sinn Fein members tend to socialise among their own at the D4 Hotel in Ballsbridge, Sean Dunne's old place, where some of them stay, on a good rate, while the Dail and Seanad are in session.

But like the far-Left TDs, whose presence in Leinster House is also a consequence of the changed national mood, Sinn Fein members make full use of the subsidised facilities in Leinster House: a dinner of meat or fish, two veg and potato costs €6; a medium-sized plate of meat salad, which is weighed before purchase, costs €4.50, a standard cup of black coffee is €1.50.

It is not particularly remarkable that Sinn Fein and (to a lesser extent) the far-Left have made themselves at home around the centre of official power. When people work - and they are working - closely together, it is inevitable that they will all rub along well enough.

These days, the work has become more and more related to the election - which will take place within a year - and less so in relation to the business of politics, the enactment of legislation, the cause and effect of which impacts on, or is a direct consequence of, changes to society in the last few years.

In reality, the Dail awaits the publication of the Fennelly report, the passage of the Child and Family Relationships Bill and the outcome of the same-sex marriage referendum before the campaign will kick off in earnest - you will be canvassed this summer - then the Budget, shortly after which the election will be called.

The Government has, effectively, decided to do nothing else that may attract controversy, or damage its re-election prospects, other than that. Everything is focussed on the election.

To maximise their own support, each party has been busy these past few weeks, and Fine Gael last weekend, ruling out others with which to form a new coalition.

In a breathtakingly cynical exercise, Fine Gael focussed attention on Fianna Fail last weekend, while allowing Sinn Fein a relative free pass in terms of criticism, but never stated categorically that it would not form a government with Sinn Fein if push came to shove after the election.

For its part, Sinn Fein is happy to play along. Fianna Fail, meanwhile, is making doe-eyes at Labour, which held its annual conference in Killarney this weekend. Labour, for its part, has targeted Sinn Fein and the far-Left in particular, in the hope that it may regain some lost support.

As recent events in Greece have shown, Labour is as much a victim of its own hubris as anything else; the consensus seems to be that the party is now bunched, but there is still a possibility that the economy will recover and in time to win back or shore up traditional support.

In my view, Labour will not do as badly as the opinion polls indicate, and nor should it, for that matter. Under the leadership of Joan Burton, and with politicians such as Alan Kelly and Jed Nash to the fore, and having played a significant part in stabilising the country, it seems to me that Labour deserves to do better than the polls suggest, whatever the broken promises, which the electorate was foolish to believe anyway.

That said, Fine Gael has played ducks and drakes with the party it showered in condescension at its conference in Castlebar last weekend, while attacking Fianna Fail and giving Sinn Fein a pass. Labour also deserved better than that.

The political landscape has so changed that Labour no longer needs Fine Gael to get into power and could just as easily make up the numbers with Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, whose members it more easily rubs along with in Leinster House.

If Siptu General Secretary Jack O'Connor has his way Labour would join forces with Sinn Fein and the far-Left to form a government after the election, notwithstanding the protestations of the far-Left that Labour is "Thatcherite", as Ruth Coppinger, the Socialist TD, claimed last week.

A key issue for Labour between now and the election will be the work of the Low Pay Commission. In the end, the extent of the party's salvation will come down to work on the ground in taking the challenge to the far-Left, and Sinn Fein in particular, as Labour Senator John Whelan seems to be doing in the new three-seat constituency of Laois, which now incorporates part of Kildare.

Whelan has taken the fight directly to Brian Stanley of Sinn Fein, stating that the final seat will be between them- in effect, laying down a challenge to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail supporters as to which candidate to transfer support to.

"This is a constituency which has seen the murder of gardai and [a] prison officer by the IRA, for which no one has ever been convicted," he said at his recent selection convention, in a declaration that could not make more clear his battle line.

Whether Whelan's morality tale ultimately trumps the immorality of the Provisional IRA campaign will be telling.

That is what makes Fine Gael's attack on Fianna Fail last weekend, and allowing Sinn Fein a pass, all the more cynical, certainly in political terms, if not in moral terms too.

What is utterly cynical, however, is the repeated attempt by all concerned to deceive the electorate.

Notwithstanding Michael Noonan's view, it seems impossible to me that Fine Gael and Labour will have the numbers to form the next government: too many like-minded Independents - between 15 and 20 - would be needed to form a government, the stability of which would be under question.

Fine Gael's attack on Fianna Fail betrays what I said at the outset - politicians are still politicians.

They pretend one thing to voters while thinking and acting differently. I know for a fact that, behind the scenes, there are manoeuvres designed to bring about a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition.

Fine Gael, meanwhile, intends to reserve its attention on Sinn Fein until closer to the election, at which point the expectation is that voters will scramble to the Government party. It is a high-risk strategy that could backfire in a campaign during which anything could, and probably will, happen.

What remains at issue, however, is whether Fine Gael would do what will confront them after the election, and form a Government with Sinn Fein. There would be resistance within Fine Gael, as there would in Sinn Fein, but I am of the view that, ultimately, both parties would share power: such are the perils of a democratic mandate.

At this remove, you should take it on advice that all of the Establishment parties, and that includes Sinn Fein, and many Independents on the left and right, would be prepared to form a government. They all rub along well enough together, after all. It is just that it does not suit them to admit it yet.

Sunday Independent

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