John Downing: Is Coalition just 'Fianna Fail Nua'? The evidence says yes
Sinn Fein has been focusing its attentions on becoming the first party of opposition
HAVE you met "Fianna Fail Nua?" You could well have done without actually noticing it. These days, the "FFN" flag flies under the joint colours of Fine Gael and Labour.
The past week has been quite extraordinary in a political sense. Everything that happened was under the shadow of reports about the murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe in Co Louth.
It is proper and reassuring that the murder of an Irish policeman on duty, his burial with due dignity and the ongoing pursuit of his murderers, should dominate the national discourse. But on such all-consuming occasions, some other significant things can slip by without much attention being paid to them.
And the other political themes of the past week were also remarkable. There was the interlinked closure of 95 garda stations across the country and the planned cutbacks in policing budgets; there was a tale of the process by which two hospitals in the south-east suddenly and happily got upgrades; and there was the Government's ongoing travails in its efforts to get a new deal on banking debts.
Across all three themes, and indeed beyond, we saw evidence of "FFN"' growing in strength. This, and developments inside Sinn Fein and other groupings, including the United Left Alliance, raises questions about how we order our political affairs.
The idea of Fine Gael mimicking Fianna Fail's pork-barrel operations has been running from about six months into the life of this Fine Gael-Labour Coalition and it has been dismissed as "lazy journalism" by the Government. But the evidence has been steadily building.
We had reports of how much grace and favour goes to the Taoiseach's home base of Co Mayo. We had the Health Minister James Reilly belatedly including two potential health centre sites in his North Dublin constituency. No later than yesterday we heard about the extraodinary generous allocation of lottery funds in Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald's Dublin Mid-West constituency.
But the tale of two hospitals – one in Environment Minister Phil Hogan's Kilkenny base, the other in Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin's Wexford bailiwick – is an interesting one because it tells us how we as a nation see life politically.
Dr Reilly intervened to ensure new development work would go ahead at both hospitals and Messrs Hogan and Howlin were able to announce the good news locally before the decision was ratified by the Health Services Executive.
Fianna Fail accused Fine Gael and Labour of treating the state coffers as a political slush fund. Sinn Fein accused Fine Gael and Labour of imitating Fianna Fail all down the years by using taxpayers' money to promote narrow party interests.
Fine Gael and Labour won themselves some valuable local silence in the south-east by challenging their local opponents on the opposition benches to explain why Kilkenny and Wexford hospitals did not merit upgrades. That's not an easy one to argue locally if you're in opposition.
There is growing evidence that Fine Gael has been busy moving into Fianna Fail's space. Labour would clearly love to cadge a bit of the same, as evidenced by Mr Howlin, who is number two in the Department of Finance – where the focus has had to be on cutting, cutting and cutting – jumping in on the Wexford Hospital scenario.
But while Fine Gael and Labour were bidding to be "FF Nua", Sinn Fein was focusing its attentions on becoming the first party of opposition and rushing out a 17-year delayed apology on Garda and Army killings in the process. Doubtless emboldened by two national surveys which showed Sinn Fein just narrowly behind Fianna Fail, Gerry Adams and colleagues mounted at least three big attacks on their chosen adversary.
On garda station closures, Sinn Fein said Fianna Fail had planned similar security spending cutbacks while in government. It followed Sinn Fein's all-encompassing hospital attack by forcefully reminding everyone that bank debt and the Anglo promissory notes, which it claimed the Government is currently messing up, were a legacy of Fianna Fail's time in government.
But if you are hacked off by FG-Labour-FF-SF, let's really cheer ourselves with a reference to the ones who came forward last time as the real political alternative. Well, last week the Socialist Party left the United Left Alliance amid tragically familiar allegations of the ULA betraying a truly leftist agenda. Then "Ming of the Bogs" Flanagan chose the perfect week to warn us he believed that the gardai were "corrupt" before he reminisced about his indulgence in exotic substances.
This time two years ago, we were in the teeth of a general election campaign which attracted seven out of 10 voters to the polls. The big campaign theme in February 2011 was a promise of new politics, and the result, declared on February 26, 2011, was hailed by some observers as a "revolution", with the biggest changes since the general election in November 1918. Two years later, it seems our new politics is uncannily like the old politics.