Wednesday 16 January 2019

Leo must be more than simply a marketing man for Fine Gael

Yates Country

Retiring Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Retiring Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

The focus this week on Leo's first 100 days as Taoiseach is fake news. Fine Gael's hold on power is as tenuous as a deckchair on Miami Beach in the face of Hurricane Irma. Leo and his Fine Gael ministers will only last as long as 44 Fianna Fáil TDs sit on their hands in the Dáil chamber - only while he fulfils the terms and conditions of their 'confidence and supply' agreement.

It's an illusion. Fine Gael is in government, but not in power.

Recently, in a radio broadcast, I confronted Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty with this mathematical reality check by describing Leo as a "eunuch" Taoiseach, describing the circumstances of his paralysed grip on governance. For my trouble, a complaint is lodged with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland over an alleged sexual insult. Ludicrous. After 18 months of relishing the trappings of office, FG ministers need reminding of FF's basic raison d'être to oust them whenever they'll gain maximum electoral advantage.

The paradigm of 'New Politics' means the lowest common denominator of Dáil approval only for populist measures. Economically, this only facilitates tax cuts/extra spending. Legislatively it means only innocuous non-contentious housekeeping laws get enacted. Policy-wise, it demands evasion of divisiveness - hence abortion is outsourced to the Citizens' Assembly, experts, and committees.

Leo can't and won't stray outside these 'New Politics' parameters if he wants to retain his dream job. All he can do is rebrand Fine Gael. He's good at marketing. He creates images of youthful energy (jogging), international trendiness (Macron and Trudeau selfies), statesmanship (Theresa May/ Brexit optics), compassionate responses (Donegal flood visibility) and instant soundbites/tweets on every moving object from George Hook's woes to Diana's anniversary.

A combination of the silly season, absentee Opposition, a post-coronation honeymoon and an army of spin doctors have procured an opinion poll bounce for FG to 33pc and and 8pc gap over FF. It's a step up from the spent force that was Enda Kenny since the crushing 2016 election reverse. We know Leo is spontaneously smart, informed and articulate. We observe his neediness to be liked. We hear his vision stuff of 2040's 'Republic of Opportunity'.

But... we reserve judgment. Voters are still in contemplative, undecided wait-and-see mode.

Their principal criticisms: 'all spin - no substance'. As carping goes, it's not too bad. Better than being accused of indolence, invisibility, indecision, ignorance, lethargy, indifference, unethical behaviour, cronyism, incompetence, arrogance, nastiness or being dictatorial.

Despite denials, every party is fast forwarding election preparations with a view to a campaign by early summer of 2018. Candidate selection conventions, policy manifesto drafts and fundraising are well underway. Senior civil servants privately confide of inertia akin to the final year of government term.

Dáil resumption amounts to more of "Up for the match" preview hype, rather than the throw-in.

The body politic being on autopilot is economically endurable as long as we have the fastest-growing economy in Europe and Brexit remains distant remote confusion. It's socially unacceptable if you can't access affordable/social housing or public health services.

Time will inevitably run out on this minority government nonsense as 'New Politics' will be synonymous with 'No Politics'.

Amidst the PR fog, Leo has one tangible recess achievement. The voluntary departure of Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan was a subtle political stroke. Her previous dogged determination to cling onto the post could've precipitated a Dáil defeat and subsequent election. All Opposition parties had declared no confidence in her. Prospects of further revelations about fake breath tests, Templemore finances and disclosures tribunal are likely to worsen things.

An O'Sullivan iceberg of titanic proportions has been defrosted.

Extricating the Government from being joined at the hip with O'Sullivan's demise was a singular success; done by subtle spin, nuanced distancing and furtive leaks of her Europol application and extended official vacation.

Further action of transforming Garda culture requires extreme reform resolve. The Department of Justice is already (sadly, but typically) resisting radical reconstruction.

Leo and Charlie Flanagan have a once-off opportunity to establish civilian standards of modern governance, accountability and efficiency. Courage to confront secrecy remains the most required attribute in a leader.

The next significant set piece to navigate FF consent is with the Budget on October 10. There's a paltry €350m-€500m of net giveaways, which will be magnified by multi-annual grossed-up targets. The macro merit of a balanced budget and national debt reduction is the most prudent priority, facing probable UK recession, a sterling slide and Brexit slump.

Sound economics doesn't generate favourable headlines, rather admirable staid stodgy credibility. That's the essence of substance over style.

FF can please more punters by focusing on USC cuts to the lower paid, benefiting 1.3 million taxpayers.

The critical issue is to send a signal the income tax burden of €20bn on individuals and payroll costs, (pre-austerities levels of €12bn) is making us an uncompetitive location and providing an oppressive disincentive to work harder.

Increasing private and public housing supply to 50,000 new units per annum has to be realised.

Here's a list of the impediments to constructing a block of 50 apartments at €200,000 (total cost €10m): planning objections/delays; raising equity finance of several million euro; non-existent infrastructure of sanitary services/roads; skilled labour shortages.

Infrastructure investment of €12bn annually is required for our population growth of one million over two decades. Let's plan it now.

Pressing the green button on implementing an auto-enrolment universal pension scheme can't wait till 2021. Do it in conjunction with reforming USC.

Repealing the eighth amendment soonest would repudiate the culture of cowardice prevalent since the X case.

Leo's leadership will not be defined in 100 days - instead it will be defined by the next election result.

Micheál Martin's leadership pivots on the same outcome. Between now and then it's merely the political foreplay of jockeying for ministerial office. We'll have to wait until the next Dáil to resolve our problems. The sooner, the better.

Irish Independent

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