Monday 16 September 2019

No more made-up rows, and could the Taoiseach please pay attention

Fixed-term elections would curb the manufactured squabbling that goes on while real problems fester

Tom Halliday's cartoon
Tom Halliday's cartoon
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Three things to consider, all of them related: 1) Eoghan Murphy, Minister for Continuing the Tradition of Ineffectual Housing Ministers, and why the Dail should vote no confidence in him, and why it won't;

2) The Taoiseach and the bizarre thing he said last Friday (I know, he says so many strange things it's hard to keep up, but this is a bit weird);

And 3), the "tensions" between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail that allegedly broke out last week, and why we need to scrap Article 13.2.1 of the Constitution.

First, Eoghan Murphy.

Sinn Fein put down a motion of no confidence in Mr Murphy. SF puts down such motions from time to time and, to be honest, I seldom pay attention.

It's all Dail manoeuvring, which I'm sure means a lot to some people, but to most of us, it's neither here nor there.

The thing about this one is, how could anyone vote confidence in Mr Murphy, given that his policies cost a fortune, go nowhere and homeless figures continue to rise?

The notion that he's somehow succeeded at his job is risible.

OK, perhaps it's unfair to pile all the blame on him, given that others have played a huge role in screwing the homeless, but - hey, he is the Housing Minister and the buck stops with him.

And, no, the Posh Boy label means nothing. I know a bit about class prejudice, and posh is not about accent or education or the area you come from, though these can be class markers - but the Posh Boy label is not what this is about.

This is about housing, and Mr Murphy's political failure to deal with a problem that's hurting thousands. This is about housing, and about the deep, grievous and lasting effect on untold numbers of children.

No self-respecting politician could possibly vote confidence in this man's failed policies.

FG/FF will, however, protect Murphy. FF denounce his failures and they denounce Fine Gael, and they claim they would do things better, but they've repeatedly made it clear beyond doubt - what they say and do are not necessarily related.

For us the debacle was 2008, when Fianna Fail policies brought pain, unemployment, despair and emigration. For them, the debacle was 2011, when they lost a ton of votes in the general election.

What matters to them is restoring their position at the top of the polls. Nothing else matters. Not Murphy, not "confidence and supply", and certainly not the people locked out of the housing market by the policies they share with Fine Gael.

So, SF will put down their motion, the FG/FF cartel will ensure its defeat. And both are acting honestly. SF deplore Murphy's policies, FG/FF shares them.

By the way, did you notice last Friday that Murphy said the housing failures are "unacceptable"? He learned that trick from Leo Varadkar.

As an ineffectual Minister for Health, Varadkar would shake his head in regret as the waiting lists grew longer and the trolley disaster got worse. "Unacceptable", he used to say, as though the problems had nothing to do with him.

It's an effective means of distancing yourself from your responsibilities. Eoghan Murphy has also twigged that the murmured "unacceptable" is a useful dodge.

Second thing to consider, the bizarre utterance from Mr Varadkar last Friday.

For years, housing activists warned that there's no cheap solution to the homeless problem, that there's no quick fix.

It's a political problem, a structural problem, tinkering won't solve it. "Incentivising" the private sector won't solve it. There's a housing emergency, the market's a casino and the State needs to face that and build homes that are affordable to people on average salaries.

There is, the housing activists stressed again and again, no quick fix. No. Quick. Fix.

Despite this, year after year, we've had quick-fix gimmicks from hapless housing ministers, most of which made fortunes for landlords, builders and vulture speculators.

And the homeless figures continued to rise.

Last week, Mr Varadkar was in Galway, at his party's annual "think-in". While officially "thinking", Mr Varadkar said this about housing: "There's no quick fix."

Like it had just dawned on him.

This is jaw-dropping, in its utter lack of connection to reality. Varadkar was a minister in two governments that squandered time and money on a succession of hopeless quick fixes. Now, he lectures the rest of us about there being "no quick fixes".

He's making it clear he paid no attention to the housing debates of the recent past.

It seems he was asleep while housing activists opposed the quick-fix private sector solutions offered by Labour and Fine Gael ministers.

The man now, more than anyone else, responsible for a political solution to the serious problems that abound, appears detached from it all.

There was indeed a debate between the "quick fix" brigade and the housing activists. It seems Mr Varadkar missed it.

Now, he needs an excuse for a succession of failures, so he announces there's "no quick fix", like it's something he half-remembers someone saying, perhaps at a dinner party.

Third thing to consider: the fantasy politics we've endured in recent days, as Mr Varadkar engaged in a mock fight with Micheal Martin.

Out of nowhere, the two got into a row about when they'd have talks to discuss extending the cartel arrangement their two parties have.

There's no principle at stake in this row, there's no issue of substance. The two parties agree on talks about extending their cartel arrangement - they just disagree on the timing.

And suddenly Varadkar was claiming this had something to do with Brexit and there was talk he might force a general election because of FG-FF "tensions".

As if there was a shortage of real problems to deal with, the Taoiseach had the time and the interest to conjure this alleged conflict out of nowhere.

The problem is Article 13.2.1. of the Constitution. It's this that gives the Taoiseach the sole power to decide when an election will be held.

This has always given incumbents an unfair advantage. The timing of an election can have a significant effect on the outcome. If invoked by surprise, it gives the incumbent a head start. And, as we saw in recent days, the implicit threat of an election, in any political squabble that arises, can wrong-foot the opposition and ratchet up a meaningless squabble.

The FG/FF cartel arrangement exists to block the emergence of a genuine opposition from among the more radical TDs elected as a response to the 2008 debacle. FG/FF hang together in the cartel, to prevent either being sidelined.

When you have a cartel government, instability is built-in. Operating hand-in-glove, the parties need made-up conflicts to stress their separateness, to keep alive the loyalty of their respective tribes.

In addition, we have a Taoiseach with an obsession about image. His priority is managing the "narrative", to present himself in a positive light. In such circumstances, any passing squabble might erupt into an election we don't need or want, on trivial issues, while the very real problems continue to fester.

Fixed-term elections, on a prescribed day, every five years, would be fairer. They would be more democratic and provide a more level playing field for all parties and candidates.

And they would be a curb against the impulses of a government led by a Taoiseach whose mind seems elsewhere than on the job at hand.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss