Friday 18 January 2019

Brexit impasse leaves us stuck with the worst Dáil in history

Deadline: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets British Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Deadline: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets British Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

The beating of collective EU and British heads against the wall of Brexit is destined to continue. The total failure to butt the backstop out of the road at the EU summit this week stops any lingering hope Leo Varadkar might have of going to the country in a December 7 general election.

With heady thoughts of capitalising on a Brexit boost put to bed for now, it's back to work with a bang next week as talks begin between the Blueshirts and Fianna Fáil on the renewal of the confidence and supply agreement. It's no longer just about policy. We will be witnessing whether or not New Politics will end.

Brexit has rightly loomed large on our economic and political landscapes. The fundamental underlying assumption still remains that a cliff edge 'no-deal' UK crash-out is so mutually disastrous for Ireland and Britain that commercial common sense must prevail. And so a withdrawal text will be fudged. Agreement will be reached. There will be a three-year transition period up to 2022, starting on April 1 next, whereby the UK will remain in the full single market - effectively with no overnight trade changes.

All of this, of course, presupposes that Theresa May will face down the DUP (as in December last). This has become entirely inevitable.

The stance adopted by Arlene Foster amounts to nothing short of strategic self-harm. Many of her recent statements have been ill-considered and counter-productive. Her remarks about amending the Good Friday Agreement were both technically and legally wrong. Her "blood red lines" comments were, to say the least, intemperate. Her flirtation with Boris Johnson was ill-advised and antagonistic to Mrs May.

Should she torpedo the DUP/Conservative alliance and budget, there will be a Brexit backlash. There will be no plan B and bridges will have been burned in London.

Inexplicably and quite disastrously, she's also repudiating the EU's exclusive ultimate special concession to the North. Spurning an opportunity of it being the only place in the European continent that remains simultaneously in both the single market and UK makes no sense. It has the potential to be the Hong Kong of Europe.

Mrs Foster is marching her party into a cul-de-sac which guarantees maximum isolation and is overplaying her hand. Her fixation with long-term unity is alienating Belfast business pragmatists.

The threat to the North from a no deal cannot be overstated. It would jeopardise the all-island electricity supply, end CAP farm income benefits, dismantle cross-Border health services and render the North utterly dependent on London taxpayer support.

This makes for an unsustainable scenario, whereas the potential "dual certification" is the sweetest spot to locate financial and other services. The problem is that the Brexiteers are strongest on rhetoric. The drums they beat on "project fear" offering "freedom to negotiate global trade opportunities" are loud and compelling.

But they are at their weakest on cold, hard realism. Leaving aside direct EU trade losses, there's zero evidence that they'll match or surpass the 57 individual free-trade agreements the UK already enjoys under the EU umbrella.

Revulsion and rejection of the ever-more shrill irrational Brexiteer will not insulate us from the consequences of their blind actions.

Anglo-Irish trade amounts to €65bn annually, sustaining 38,000 Irish companies that employ 200,000 people. This risk represents the most serious setback to our prosperity since 1973. It requires our political parties and leaders, without precedent, to put aside normal politics. All is changed, changed utterly.

I advocated before, during and after the last general election in March 2016 (months before the Brexit vote in June), that our national interest was best served by a grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil historically combining to form a strong, stable government for five years, without prejudice to their respective futures.

IN MY view, there isn't a cigarette paper between them on economic policy. They share cultures of cronyism, patronage and constituency clientelism. The continuation of tribal Civil War politics is an anachronism in our 21st-century Ireland.

Inevitably, both scoffed in ridicule at the naïvety, impossibility and counter-productive consequences of a once-off realignment.

Instead, we ended up with the worst Dáil and weakest government ever. The waffle went into overdrive but legislation slowed to a trickle. So we had no reform.

Hard options were avoided at all costs, simply resolving problems like water, housing and health by increasing public subsidies.

Soft option politics reigned supreme.

The confidence and supply agreement gave us a reliance on a ragbag of incoherent and opportunistic Independents, regular Dáil defeats reminding us the minority Fine Gael Government it is in office, not in power.

Meanwhile vested interests/public sector unions were free to exert pressure to reverse Troika-imposed efficiencies and productivity gains.

So here we have come to a place where everybody is looking over their shoulder - Fine Gael at Fianna Fáil, Fianna Fáil at Sinn Féin - and a maze of protesting Independents, who abdicate responsibility for governance, hold undue sway.

Sooner or later this farce must end.

We must have a credible government with a workable parliamentary majority to implement weekly Cabinet decisions.

The authority of any administration derives from a viable voting strength - rather than relying on the temporary grace and favour of the government's biggest competitor seeking to displace it.

We've looked the other way because the Dáil arithmetic provides no better solution once a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil government was repudiated.

How and when should this sham end?

This is all made the more urgent by the recent departures of Deputies Peter Fitzpatrick, Dr Michael Harty and Denis Naughten.

We hardly need to accentuate the Brexit disaster through Government implosion in Dublin and inter-party talks resume next week. Only this time, it's in the context of a cat-and-mouse election end game.

Micheál Martin's constructive opposition or quasi-support or engagement has left his party in limbo and too date his public reward has been to see a marginal growth in support for Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

He has suffered a loss of party identity and shipped criticism for his lack of an adversarial leadership style.

Fianna Fáil deserves credit for enduring a lot of unpopular governance responsibility for minimum returns in terms of power and perks.

In any event, on Friday, May 24, 2019 the nation goes to the polls to elect 949 councillors and 13 MEPs. A spring election in March or April will feed into that competitive electoral context.

Irish Independent

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