Monday 27 May 2019

I believe in politics, but the behaviour of our elected TDs damages the profession

Liz O'Donnell

Cynicism about politics is terrible; something which I deplore whenever I encounter it. I believe in politics, its power to influence change and make life better for people. I believe in our democratic institutions, our Constitution and our capacity as a civilised population to manage our own affairs through the vehicle of an elected parliament and government.

I had the privilege to serve as a TD for 15 years and know absolutely that elected politicians, in all their diversity, can through collective action and decision-making do really important things for society.

Whether it is by legislation, debate, enforcement and implementation of policies or through diplomacy, national interests can be nurtured and protected from injury or sabotage through politics.

But the behaviour of our elected politicians since the election seven weeks ago is doing real damage to the profession of politics and the integrity of our democratic institutions. While not cynical, I am dismayed at the poor level of competence being displayed. It is an insult to the electorate.

As we mark the centenary of our independent State, one cannot but feel a level of pride at the strides made in our country's economic and social development, transiting as we have from backward, inward-looking nationalism to a modern, progressive and pluralist society. Even taking into account the economic crash from which we struggle to emerge, as a country we are holding our own and performing better than most in similar adversity.

We have survived the ignominy of an IMF/ECB bailout thanks to the tolerance and good sense of our population, who in the main accepted necessary and painful fiscal adjustments in public spending. To quote the late Brian Lenihan, "We have turned a corner".

Our recent experience has a lot in common with other heavily indebted European countries. Politics has not been unstirred by these global catastrophic events. Inevitably harsh cuts and national penury has been accompanied by unemployment, emotional distress, personal indebtedness, emigration and a growing disenchantment with establishment political parties.

In countries like Spain and Greece, there has been a shift to the protest-driven and populist parties of the far left as represented by Podemus and Syriza. In Ireland, the fracturing of the vote includes an electoral preference for Independents as well as the flight to the far left, a heady mix which has delivered an inconclusive election result and the current stalemate.

But even as so many flee in anger to the politics of protest, most people essentially cling to the moderate middle ground by plumping for one of the two conservative parties - Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

From day one, this suggested that those two big parties should form a grand coalition; a novel but not entirely outrageous prospect. Or so it seemed.

In other countries, it would have been the obvious next step. But seven weeks have passed, during which almost every other possibility has received consideration.

So anathema is the prospect of such an alliance to both parties, that scant consideration has been given to it.

A belated and strategic offer last week by Fine Gael to form a coalition based on full equal partnership with Fianna Fáil was acrimoniously rejected.

This week's offering was for both parties to work out how either would support a minority government headed up by one of them.

Fly fishing comes to mind. People cannot believe the length of time it has taken to reach what the Taoiseach curiously termed a "brave and bold" move. It was neither of those things.

Time passes slowly in the environs of Leinster House. TV political correspondents repeat themselves; journalists struggle to file copy, such is the paucity of progress. I was out of the country for 10 days and missed nothing. The paralysis and lack of creativity emanating from the main parties is staggering. Micheál Martin's surprise ultimatum to the Independents on the eve of yesterday's vote at least broke the slumber.

Labour is still licking its wounds amid an unseemly leadership wrangle. Do they not grasp that Labour could be the "meat in the sandwich" in any such arrangement?

Why are they so wedded to defeatism and opposition? Look what the PDs achieved with between four and eight seats over two governments? After a disastrous election in 1997, the party was reduced from 10 to four seats. Yet we had the numbers to form a stable government which lasted for five years.

The Labour Party, rather than languishing on the opposition benches with Sinn Féin, the loony Left and a clatter of Independents, could be demonstrating its competence supporting or participating in a minority Fine Gael government. Just because you take an electoral mugging does not mean you are down and out.

Enda Kenny has been uncharacteristically lethargic. True, he moved earlier to reach out to like-minded parties to support him as Taoiseach but has failed to secure that support. Micheál Martin, too, has disappointed; being pompously evasive as though he had a better hand.

There has been no statesmanlike contribution from either man.

Perhaps the worst side-effect of this big-party paralysis is the opening it provides for the Independents to hog the airwaves with homespun and folksy theories of how to run a country. Some have notions of ministerial office.

Already there are signs of the disastrous incoherence and instability that any reliance on Independents would involve.

Independent TD John Halligan has called off any further discussions with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil unless he gets commitments about cardiac care in his constituency. Where does it end? Independents are, by their nature, eccentrics and wedded to their locality. No serious government should rely on them and expect to last a full term, particularly in the current climate.

It was difficult enough in 1997-2002, when we had plenty of money to keep them happy. But in a stressed political context, stitching them in would be a white-knuckle ride for government whips.

Meanwhile, as the tiresome pirouetting on the plinth continues, TDs seem oblivious to the gobsmacked reaction of the public.

Credibility is draining away; people shake their heads, resigned to another unnecessary election. Our hapless politicians are sailing along, blind to looming shocks ahead - such as a possible Brexit in June, smouldering industrial unrest from all quarters and rising homelessness. Politics is being debased.

Irish Independent

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