Tuesday 21 May 2019

Faffing and waffling about Dáil reform is a distraction - FF must do a deal with FG

Liz O'Donnell

Anyone who has seen the movie 'Zero Dark Thirty' about the black ops mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden will recall the frustration and impatience of the female CIA agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, while awaiting approval to mount an assault on a suspect compound in Pakistan.

As time passed, with no decision to move in on the target, the irate agent would write in red marker on the glass window of her superior's office the number of days which had elapsed - and encircle it with vehemence. Many of us are now longing for such a glass window to display our impatience with the carry-on of our elected politicians, particularly senior members of Fianna Fáil.

Enda Kenny was correct to assert this week that Fianna Fáil have a duty to help Fine Gael towards the formation of a government.

The inevitable alliance is between the two parties. Talking to Independents and small parties and waffling about Dáil reform is a masterpiece of distraction.

Claims of incompatibility on policy are easily countered by an examination of the respective party manifestos. Such an analysis was done by economist Jim O'Leary this week, and it reveals a remarkable degree of similarity on tax and spending projections.

He concludes that, on tax, the two parties are "on the same page" - for example, they're both in favour of reducing taxes, unlike Sinn Féin, who propose penal rates of tax, and the Social Democrats, who undertook not to cut taxes.

The truth is, Fianna Fáil are notoriously slow to embrace change. Recall the pleas about their "core values" trumpeted in advance of the first mould-breaking FF/PD coalition in 1989.

Similarly, on Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution - and any proposals for changing them in the context of a political settlement on Northern Ireland - I recall how early talks involving Fianna Fáil on the issue broke down on whether the Irish government "could" or "would" contemplate changing those articles.

As we now know, Fianna Fáil finally accepted and implemented those constitutional changes and the principle of consent nearly a decade later in 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement and referendum.

Fianna Fáil are always cautious about big moves. Another example of slowness in shifting position relates to the party's long-standing policy on military neutrality, going back to the days of Frank Aiken in the 1940s.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s, and proposals to consider Ireland's engagement with other Euro-Atlantic countries in operations under NATO's Partnership for Peace. This would allow Irish troops to participate in bilaterally agreed areas such as NATO-led peace-keeping missions, and disaster and humanitarian operations.

Fianna Fáil wrestled with their consciences and anti-NATO sentiment for five years before agreeing to join the Partnership for Peace. Former FF Minister, TD and diplomat, Martin Mansergh, memorably described this slow process as "FF turning the ship around without alarming the passengers".

So, Micheál Martin has a real challenge internally if a deal is to be cut with Fine Gael. But he must do it.

For a start, he needs good counsel around him - and not necessarily all party colleagues. Sometimes it's wise to keep nervous passengers in the dark.

In the old days, PJ Mara would be pacing the corridors, smoking cigarettes and knocking heads together. Trusted intermediaries should build bridges and scope out possibilities.

With the PDs, it was always Charlie McCreevy - on the Fianna Fáil side - with Mary Harney or Bobby Molloy, who shared strong friendships and inter-party trust.

It seems incredible that three weeks after the General Election, Enda Kenny has not spoken to Micheál Martin. Mr Kenny is the longest serving member of Dáil Éireann. He knows well how to reach out to the Fianna Fáil leader.

Mr Martin, buoyed by a strong popular mandate, should embrace such talks with colleagues capable of thinking progressively.

It is baffling that Fianna Fáil are fielding TDs with dogged, intransigent views to address the media. Éamon Ó Cuív and Barry Cowen have a particular talent for holding the line and saying nothing. Fianna Fáil need to adopt a fresh approach or risk forfeiting recent electoral gains.

The suspicion is that Fianna Fáil are fearful of change, and of the rise of Sinn Féin. To be afraid of Sinn Féin as a political force is akin to fearing them as paramilitaries - and that is a tyranny.

A good government would take the wind out of the Sinn Féin sails. There is a coalition deal to be done, and drafting a programme for government would be straightforward. It just takes political courage.

Uncertainty and instability like this is damaging to our international reputation.

Political discourse itself is being debased by a phoney media debate and procrastination. By not pulling together, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are exposing Irish politics to all the nihilist, anti-business rhetoric flowing freely from the anti-establishment hard left.

Such forces of disorder thrive in a political vacuum, poisoning the public mood and our international reputation.

A good, progressive and stable partnership government to address immediate challenges in health, housing and poverty would quickly defuse the noise coming from those quarters.

To avoid civil and industrial unrest, inflammatory evictions, street protests and worse should be a priority of the new government.

Dithering is neither good politics nor good government.

Irish Independent

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