Saturday 25 May 2019

Beleaguered Bertie is just crawling towards Christmas

Sam Smyth

The queue of volunteers planning to stuff Bertie Ahern's turkey this Christmas gets longer by the day.

An invigorated opposition and a tortoise-paced tribunal are vying for the privilege, but an exasperated electorate beat them both to the punch.

Yesterday's opinion poll shows that the electorate has lost patience with Fianna Fail's incompetence in government. And the only good news for its leader is that it didn't measure the public's regard for him.

The seven per cent collapse of support for Fianna Fail and a corresponding rise in popularity for Fine Gael and the Labour Party is ominous for the Taoiseach.

Privately, some senior Fianna Failers are saying that if the Red C poll had asked voters about the Taoiseach's performance, his standing would have been even lower than the party's.

And that could mean that Fianna Fail and Bertie Ahern, a 10-year, three-term political Darby and Joan, will be soon be seeking a separation rather than reconciliation counselling.

The poll in the Sunday Business Post also indicated that the public believe that the government misled them in the general election campaign.

This catastrophic collapse in support just days before a crucial no-confidence motion in the Dail comes while a tribunal hears about highly questionable goings-on in the Taoiseach's personal finances.

Throw in seething public anger over a fat pay hike for ministers and the government's call for pay restraint from PAYE taxpayers and continuing crises in the health service.

Then add on deep foreboding about a crash in property prices and well-grounded fears about an economic slow-down, and a pattern begins to emerge.

This poll, just before the Budget, suggests that An Taoiseach's personal credibility is perilously close to bankruptcy and that the electorate has lost faith in the government.

Beleaguered Fianna Fail ministers and their hapless advisors have that blank stare of exhaustion as they try to put the government on automatic pilot and cruise into the Christmas holiday.

A break until the Dail returns in the last week of January would buy time and allow them to regroup while the public slips into annual festive amnesia.

Christmas is a disinfectant that scrubs away old bad news and allows another chance of renewal with resolutions after New Year's Day. Problems that appeared so ominous two weeks before usually fall into perspective after the January sales.

Not-so-old hands remember that a similar hullabaloo erupted after the 2002 election, with a similar collapse in the government's popularity amid comparable accusations.

Five years ago it was Charlie McCreevy who was pilloried for over-spending before the election and then implementing cutbacks following some contrived change-of-circumstances after it was won.

Fianna Fail ran the race from the 2002 election to the rerun on May 24 last like marathon runners: they stayed back while the opposition blustered and exhausted themselves.

Just three weeks before polling day on May 24, the polls said that Fianna Fail would not be leading a government after the election. In the final week of campaigning, though leadership debates and the steadying hand of Brian Cowen, they scraped through.

The government's argument was that things were going to slow down, and in times of economic uncertainty, the country was better off with an experienced team in cabinet.

The economic projections they made were based on the same figures available to the opposition, so the charge that they misled the public doesn't stand up.

But then the truth doesn't matter as much as the perception and the public now believe that the Fianna Fail-led government did mislead them.

Conventional wisdom has it that faced with a choice: a Fine Gael-led coalition that hadn't won an election since 1983, or a third-term Fianna Fail led government. And the public stuck with the devil they knew.

For such an experienced politician whose reputation was built on an uncanny insight into the public mood, Bertie Ahern didn't see the ministerial pay hike as deal-breaker.

Giving themselves and senior public servants a massive pay rise was an enormous political mistake. And calling on PAYE workers for pay restraint compounded the perceived arrogance.

As the highest paid head of government in the world of democratically elected politicians, the Taoiseach's protestations about the perks of others were deeply irritating.

But more ominous for him, it showed grievously flawed judgement.

As the markets sagged and plummeted and property prices tottered on the edge of the unknown, another appalling vista loomed: a health service apparently out of control.

Watching women queue for hours over the weekend at a makeshift health centre in Portlaoise for emergency cancer tests was a harrowing sight to behold.

A vote of no-confidence in the minister administratively responsible for the health service was as inevitable as s wave of public anger followed the grim news on cancer testing from Portlaoise.

Last May, people decided to stick with the government they knew to manage public services rather than change. The news from the public this weekend suggests they might now be ready for that change.

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