Thursday 24 January 2019

New politics is not perfect, but it has helped steady the ship for two years

Leinster House (Stock picture)
Leinster House (Stock picture)
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

'New politics' is two years old this week. It is a momentous occasion, not least because ministers now qualify for their pension top-ups, but also because it has actually been reasonably stable.

There were wobbly moments such as when Frances Fitzgerald had to walk the plank in order to prevent a Christmas election. And there was the time that part of the Independent Alliance wanted to sort out North Korea.

But in general the country is moving towards prosperity again and repeated opinion polls have suggested the Government is relatively popular.

Few would have predicted it in May 2016 when, after more than 10 weeks, Enda Kenny signed a deal not only with a bunch of Independents including the unpredictable Shane Ross but - also his fiercest enemies in Fianna Fáil.

It was actually the previous February when we went to the polls and voters kicked Fine Gael, banished the Labour Party, offered Fianna Fáil a road to redemption and crowned the Independents kingmakers.

Sinn Féin was nowhere to be seen in the negotiations that followed, while Mr Kenny came across as almost desperate to cling onto power.

A headline in the Irish Independent read: "Power at any price as Kenny buys off Dáil."

And that's what Mr Kenny did. The Programme for Government, named 'A Partnership for a Fairer Ireland', was 156 pages long. That was more than double the size of the previous deal between Fine Gael and Labour.

It painted a picture of an Ireland reborn on the global stage. Rural affairs featured heavily and there were countless side deals.

Mr Kenny's Cabinet appointments were strategic too. He promoted Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald and Simon Coveney to leadership contenders.

Leo Varadkar was shunted into Social Protection, having kicked up at the idea of being left in Health. That went to Simon Harris, who must still wonder how different things could be if his biggest worry was arguing with Fianna Fáil over a pension increase.

It set the scene for the past two years, which have brought mixed fortunes for the main political parties and indeed the country.

Mr Kenny managed to eke out another year as Taoiseach before eventually giving in to the backbenchers.

Mr Varadkar had spare time to buy coffee and buns for journalists with Paschal Donohoe in Dublin, while Simon Coveney was obviously proof-reading some glossy posters.

And the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

The dawn of this Dáil was heralded by talk of reform. Opposition TDs would be listened to. Their ideas would make it into legislation. And those laws would be passed by compromise rather than guillotine.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Week after week the Opposition has brought Bills into the House and got them through first stage. And then they disappear into some filing cabinet.

The only difference from 'old politics' is that the Government doesn't shred the Bills any more, thereby leaving itself in a position to say it's under consideration.

A good example is Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless's bill to tackle the rise of phoney social media accounts. It came before the Dáil last December and would be very useful ahead of the abortion referendum - but, alas, it's going nowhere fast.

The incoming Government promised huge leaps towards fixing our broken health and housing systems. Two headlines from yesterday's paper will tell you how that is going.

One relating to the CervicalCheck scandal read: "More than 5,500 terrified women still waiting on helpline callback."

You only have to turn a few pages to find another headline that read: "Single person works 86 days to cover rent."

But the economy is booming again. There will be €3bn to give away in October's Budget if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can find a mutually agreed way to divide it up.

And we're heading steadily towards full employment again.

The Government also has the backing of the Dáil and the public when it comes to the defining battle of this moment: Brexit.

But 'new politics' won't make its third birthday. All sides have managed through the past two years, some better than others.

And when the election comes, probably later this year, the polls suggest we'll have to come up with a new version of 'new politics'.

Irish Independent

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