Wednesday 20 November 2019

John Drennan: Charles and Di moment for our faltering Coalition

The Budget, the fate of the Health Minister and property tax have rocked a tense union

John Drennan

IF Budgets had human personalities last week's concoction resembled a middle-aged John Major lookalike in a grey suit, slinking along a wall in the middle of a riot, trying his damnedest to slip past the disturbances without being noticed.

The Government may, when it comes to its embrace of the utterly 'modest' aspiration of keeping out of trouble and hoping for the best, think it has succeeded.

On Thursday, at least, no mutinous crowds gathered outside Leinster House, while to the surprise of some and the disappointment of Fine Gael, within the Labour Party no TDs, as of yet, have leaped off the cliff.

But this may not be quite so good a sign for the Government, for the silence on both fronts was infused by an acute sense of defeatism rather than acquiescence.

When a citizenry is wandering around in the sort of sullen daze normally associated with occupied countries after a lost war, this is not a good signal of national or political health. But the Government should be concerned for more practical reasons.

Deep wounds were inflicted on the long-term sustainability of the Coalition last week, and nothing epitomised this more than the sinuous manoeuvres of Ruairi Quinn.

Few foxes have been padding around the political covert for longer than Ruairi Quinn with more success; in Labour terms at least.

And when Health Minister James Reilly left Quinn looking like a muppet some months ago during the primary care crisis, the knife was always, at some stage, going to be slipped through his ribs.

Quinn's devastating verdict, rendered in the, ahem, 'secret' confines of a Labour parliamentary party meeting annexed the initial headlines. But his subsequent comment that when it comes to Fine Gael and Labour "we are two separate parties with two separate traditions and ideologies" may have far more serious long-term consequences for the Coalition.

The one vice we cannot accuse Mr Quinn of is being loose-lipped.

It would be excessive to say Quinn's subtle positioning on the ideological differences between the Coalition 'partners' marks the end of an affair that never sparkled too brightly in the first place.

But what is clear is that the initial bright, glad, confident morning, where we were told Ireland had elected its first ever national government, is over, for the defining nature of such governments is one of united purpose against a common foe.

The new divisiveness is all coming as 'a bit of a shock' for normally, even in marriage, the timeframe between the honeymoon and the beginning of that seven-year itch lasts for more than 18 months.

Significantly within old Labour, Mr Quinn is not alone in his unease, for already a new 'la Resistance' against the yoke of Blueshirts Uber Alles is being signalled by the escalating whispers from TDs about how Fianna Fail was always more 'compatible' and 'isn't it great to see them coming back'.

And, intriguingly within Sinn Fein, the talk too is of how, in certain circumstances SF and a Labour Party that has lost its way should be on the same side.

Suddenly, the tectonic plates of Irish politics are shifting to such an extent that even Labour's self-described 'nasty FG partners' are not anchored quite so sweetly in the state of perpetual political power Messrs Noonan and Kenny believe them to be.

Of course, the parties did still manage to put a Budget of sorts through. And, in fairness, we are still not quite in Charles and Diana territory. The rift is still of the silly, rather than bitter, variety.

The Cabinet is obviously split between Fine Gael, which

finally let its desire for large-scale social welfare cuts out of the closet, in response to Labour's desires to save their skins by taxing millionaires, even though the real cause of Labour's woe lies far further down the income scale.

In a Cabinet that is also divided between the gilded aristocrats of the Economic Management Council and the rest of the humbler vin ordinaire, ministers on both sides are split on whether James Reilly should still be a minister.

The Cabinet is also divided on the belief that Joan Burton has gotten away with murder.

Then there is the accelerating split in the Cabinet and among Fine Gael and Labour TDs over the re-working of a Croke Park deal which, we are told, much to the terror of the Cabinet, will decide whether the budgetary figures of Dr Reilly stack up.

The problem for the Government, and for Enda in particular, is that the salvaging of Reilly may evolve into a political fetish. If he does leave the Cabinet, Labour will claim the credit for that head, even if Fine Gael has used the blade.

But if saving the doctor remains a Fine Gael political imperative then this will only serve to further enhance tensions with Labour.

It is a sad reflection on the deteriorating performance of a government that promised a thousand reforms that it may yet be consumed with infighting over a political rag doll like Reilly.

And that's even before we get to the loose string of the property tax and how Paddy will manage this whole self-assessment process; God save the mark.

The bad news for the Government is that suddenly its survival prospects have become as equivocal as the future of the property tax.

Any relationship counsellor will tell you that trust, be it in good or malfunctioning unions, once shattered cannot be rebuilt.

Such a virtue is now completely absent from a 'union' where Fine Gael thinks Labour is running the Government by stealth and Labour believes last week's Budget represented a classic case of Eamon Gilmore being sandbagged after bringing a knife to the budgetary gun-fight.

Of course, present necessity means new wounds can be covered over but they will not heal fully.

For now they will hang together because the alternative is unattractive, but, last week may go down as the beginning of the end for the Grumpy Old Men.

Sunday Independent

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