Friday 17 January 2020

Eoghan Harris: Tale of two Irelands won't have a happy ending for FF

By Jim Cogan
By Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

The big drop in Fianna Fail support in last Thursday's Irish Times poll was a shock but not a surprise. A shock is something that happens suddenly without warning. But a surprise only jolts us for a second before we realise we subconsciously knew it was coming all along.

Some in Fianna Fail will try to take comfort by finessing the figures. And yes, as I wrote at the time, the previous Irish Times poll overestimated Fianna Fail support.

But a drop of seven points is serious and poses a structural problem for the party, not least in facing the two problems that caused the poll collapse.

Because neither is fixable without a change of culture in Fianna Fail, and both boil down to the word arrogant.

A consensus of dictionaries defines an arrogant person or body as having an exaggerated sense of their own abilities or importance.

Alas, in Ireland, the word 'arrogant' is only applied to politicians who have a perfectly accurate sense of their own abilities but were not populist flesh-pressers.

Accordingly, the adjective has been wrongly applied to politicians as diverse as Conor Cruise O'Brien, Michael McDowell and Charles Haughey - and only Haughey deserved it.

Haughey amplified the arrogant streak in Fianna Fail. And it still surfaces in the party's affection for two vested interests: Fianna Fail itself and the fat cat part of the public sector.

Most Fianna Fail frontbenchers still suffer from two delusions: that the party has a divine right to rule and that the public has forgiven its past arrogance.

But, as I've been writing here for the past three years, Micheal Martin is the sole reason Fianna Fail has made a partial recovery.

Foolishly, many front-benchers believe that Martin's public popularity is merely based on his media performances at the General Election.

Actually, it's based on two fundamental factors that matter a lot more to Middle Ireland, which is trying to figure out if it can trust Fianna Fail.

First, Martin showed his trustworthy character by keeping his word about not going into government with either Sinn Fein or Fine Gael.

Second, he has convinced most people that he wants to reform the Fianna Fail party and root out the old, cute-hoor culture.

The problem is that the public still suspects that only Martin has a firm purpose of amendment, especially after Conor Lenihan's triumphalist cry of "We're back".

Arrogance is also the father of laziness. Most FF shadow spokespersons took long summer holidays and largely left the airwaves to Sinn Fein and the Independents.

Big mistake. Politics, going back to the Greeks, has always been about perception, about media.

So Fianna Fail can't complain about Sinn Fein and the Independents having 44pc between them.

Because some of the 3pc swing from FF to SF was caused by FF frontbenchers appearing to go AWOL.

This sense of absence was amplified by RTE turning up the heat in continually calling for public money to be found for a plethora of worthy causes. Of which more anon.

In recent weeks, Middle Ireland has been watching how Fianna Fail would handle public sector pay demands. And Fianna Fail failed the test.

Instead of pointing out that the country is still strapped, that cash for worthy causes has to be paid for out of the public purse, and standing up to public sector unions, Fianna Fail went into full-blooded, populist mode.

But Middle Ireland knows well that there is no bottomless pot of public gold into which gardai, nurses and teachers can dip at will. And it expects Fianna Fail to say so, not indulge in populist posturing.

This brings me to the second reason for the Fianna Fail's drop in the polls: its long love affair with Ireland's biggest vested interest - the public sector and its unions.

Conversely, Fianna Fail cannot even fake affection for the three workers in four who make up the majority private sector, and who create all our wealth.

Micheal Martin made a passing reference to the self- employed in the television debates. More than most in FF, he tries hard to not think like a teacher.

But Fianna Fail's heart is not in the private sector. Few politicians in any party have a feel for that down and dirty world.

Thanks to Bertie Ahern, I saw this lack of empathy at first hand in my short stint in the Seanad.

Surrounded by public servants, most politicians soon lose any real feeling for the hardship of life in private sector.

Civil servants don't have to commute long distances in the dawn, don't lack job security, don't have shambolic pension arrangements.

Few in the Fianna Fail frontbench have anything but a hazy notion of how hard life is for private sector workers and for the self-employed.

For a start, according to the CSO, private sector workers are paid on average 40pc less than public sector - and, unlike the latter, they have no job security and no adequate pension when they get old or sick.

Private sector workers also pay high taxes but they get poor public services in return. And they rightly suspect that public sector pay and pensions are leeching cash from health and education.

The gap in pay and pensions between the public and private sector is the biggest, secret injustice in Irish politics. Secret, because every party is in a conspiracy to conceal it.

The few commentators who point it out are given dog's abuse by the public sector union propagandists.

But I did not create that gap; Bertie Ahern and the public sector unions created it. And it's a scandal.

There are now two Irelands. A minority with permanent, pensionable and secure jobs; and a majority with none of these things - and worse still, with no party to protect it.

RTE is not reporting the reality of these two Irelands, because Montrose itself is part of public-sector Insider Ireland.

So it salves its conscience by beating the drum for more public spending and by sympathetic coverage of continual demands for higher pay from gardai, teachers and nurses.

Fianna Fail's failure to curb the public sector and protect the private sector is both a serious injustice and a serious political mistake.

Because, slowly but surely, the private sector is moving away from traditional parties which it sees as looking after Insider Ireland.

Last Monday, like everybody else who works in the private sector, I stared in shock at a headline which said one in five civil servants left with a lump sum of €100,000, tax free on top of their pensions.

Given how little risk any of them ran in their 40 years, why should they be paid that massive sum of taxpayers' money?

Compared with creative artists, entrepreneurs, who work endless hours, or factory workers, what did they contribute to the State?

As I simmered in rage, I wondered if anyone in Fianna Fail remembers the lines of Louis MacNeice.

It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,

Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

Sunday Independent

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