Monday 22 July 2019

Hapless Coalition has capitulated and now stares into watery grave

A series of blunders could spell the same fate as that of the 1977 FG-Labour coalition government

'Neither of the actual 'leaders', Enda Kenny nor Joan Burton, impressed at the banking inquiry. That in itself is far from fatal, but it did show up weaknesses'
'Neither of the actual 'leaders', Enda Kenny nor Joan Burton, impressed at the banking inquiry. That in itself is far from fatal, but it did show up weaknesses'

Shane Coleman

It was the beginning of the long, hot summer of 1977. The general election had just been called by the Fine Gael and Labour National Coalition. And a group of its Dublin-based ministers and aides were gathered in a hotel room to hear the results of a private opinion poll they had commissioned from MRBI.

Polls were almost unheard of in those days, but the widespread view of commentators and pundits was that the Coalition was a certainty to be re-elected. That myth was about to be shattered. MRBI told the gathering that 59pc of those polled said they intended to vote Fianna Fáil. Game over. The stunned silence was broken only by the sound of teacups being placed back on saucers and, eventually, the distinctive tones of Garret FitzGerald asking, "Can we undissolve the Dail?"

Sometimes, the moment when a government realises the next election is already lost is clear cut. There was a sense last week, when the news came through of Eurostat's ruling on Irish Water, that this might be one of those moments.

Less definitive, obviously, than that day in the hotel room in June, 1977. But significant nonetheless.

In its 1,600 or so days in office, during some pretty difficult times, the current Coalition has been called many things. But never incompetent. Now, for the time being, it's credible to make that charge. And that could prove electorally fatal.

Of course, mistakes were made from the very beginning with the setting up of Irish Water. Some were more about perception - the proposed use of PPS numbers; fears about privatisation and the revelation about spend on consultants being obvious examples. Others were more real, such as the sweetheart service-level agreements with the local authorities which replicated the mistakes made when the HSE replaced the health boards.

However, introducing a new charge like this was never going to be straightforward. It mightn't have been wise to say it, but Phil Hogan had a point when he said you couldn't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

The real disaster, though, came last November. A panicking government rolled out two new charges - €160 or €260 - with a so-called "conservation" grant of €100 for those who registered an interest. The goal was to make the charges so small that it neutered reasonable opposition.

But the Coalition was so unnerved, the conservation principle of payment based on usage was abandoned. And crucially, it opted not to bring in any real penalty for those who didn't pay their charges - it was all carrot and no stick. Sensing chronic weakness, huge numbers decided they weren't going to pay. It was breathtakingly stupid.

And, most damningly, it was born out of political cowardice. Of course, pragmatism required some form of compromise on water charges given the ferocity of public opposition. But instead of compromising, the Coalition capitulated.

How anybody in Government who crunched the numbers for more than five minutes thought the new pricing model for Irish Water would get past Eurostat is beyond belief. Reading between the lines, it doesn't appear to have been even close.

And now a hapless Coalition is caught between a rock and a hard place. If it tries to meet Eurostat's criteria, for example, by abolishing the €100 grant, there'll be uproar. If it walks away from water charges, as some believe is now likely, its authority is completely shot. And if it does nothing, the level of non-payment of bills is likely to rise - as an 'if the majority aren't paying, why should I?' attitude takes hold.

The real worry for the Coalition is that, similar to Irish Water customers, voters will smell weakness and go elsewhere. And who in the cabinet is going to persuade them otherwise?

One of the big themes of the GAA championship this year is leadership, or the lack thereof. The woes of the likes of Cork (in hurling and football), Meath, Westmeath, Armagh and, before their renaissance, Kildare, have been put down to a lack of leaders on the pitch.

The same charge could be levelled with bells on for the Coalition. Take the guile and calm presence of 72-year-old Michael Noonan out of the equation, and you ask: where is the leadership coming from?

Labour has lost three of its heavy hitters in the shape of Pat Rabbitte, Eamon Gilmore and Ruairi Quinn. The cabinet is unquestionably the poorer for it and so is the party.

Brendan Howlin remains a safe pair of hands, but he is preoccupied by budgetary matters and his public profile has rarely been lower. Frances Fitzgerald has done an excellent job restoring calm in Justice; Simon Coveney had a good same-sex marriage referendum and Paschal Donohoe hasn't put a foot wrong in Transport, but none of these three are classic rallying figures.

The public still have a high regard for Leo Varadkar, but he has his work cut out in Health. And it can also only be a matter of time before he gets called out on the incompatibility of his demands for big increases in spending in Health and being part of a Fine Gael party that is advocating major tax cuts.

Most importantly, the wariness towards Varadkar that exists among the ever-watchful Fine Gael leadership means his role, beyond his immediate portfolio, is likely to be circumscribed.

Neither of the actual 'leaders', Enda Kenny nor Joan Burton, impressed at the banking inquiry. That in itself is far from fatal, but it did show up weaknesses. Both, for different reasons, struggled to answer straightforward questions put to them and the 'it's all Fianna Fáil's fault' message has become seriously jaded.

Kenny was a breath of fresh air when he came to power. It was a relief to have a Taoiseach who could smile and who didn't look like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. But the doubts about his grasp of policy detail never entirely went away. And despite notable achievements - the Troika's exit; falling unemployment; the promissory note restructuring and strong economic recovery - the public seem unconvinced.

The Burton bounce, meanwhile, has never materialised for Labour and the party is now in full survival mode. That tends not to result in good decision-making. And, as Labour discovered in 1997, throwing the kitchen sink at the electorate doesn't work if voters have already made up their minds about you.

The unmistakable sense is that this is a self-regarding government overly concerned about PR - certainly in the second part of its term. In fact, the four and a half years in office can be split into two.

The first part, from March 2011 to the end of 2013, was largely successful. While it arguably should have grasped the nettle of water charges during its early days in office, it did make the necessary tough decisions and there was a focus and a drive to do what had to be done.

The exit of the Troika in December 2013, though, seemed to bring about a change. The sight of a red carpet outside Government Buildings with a selection of ministers dotted along it, holding court for the media - a little like Oscars night - will live long in the memory.

Perhaps it wasn't conscious, but it was almost a case of 'job done for the country, now let's focus on getting re-elected'.

Instead of tough decisions, we got budgetary giveaways; election promises, a disastrous mishandling of the penalty points/Department of Justice issues; and a cave-in on Irish Water. Fine Gael, the party of law and order, was presiding over a country where water meter installers could only operate between 5am and 8am. The bullies were winning and being allowed to.

Perhaps, getting re-elected after having to introduce three tough budgets - involving the introduction of a property tax and water charges - was always too big an ask. There's no doubt the tough medicine would poison a considerable percentage of the electorate to the Coalition.

But the suspicion is that if, instead of hiding behind the Troika, the Coalition had properly made the case for measures like water charges and had been willing to take the flak, it - and certainly Fine Gael - would have held the middle-ground voters.

Instead, after 2013, the Coalition stopped taking the fight to its opponents, particularly on the left. There were exceptions. Simon Harris's tour de force against Eamon Dunphy on the Claire Byrne Show was a rare example of a Government minister telling it like it is, not apologising for it, landing a few blows and winning the argument hands down. But such rallying points have been few and far between.

If there is a shaft of light for the Coalition, it's that this isn't June, 1977. There are months, instead of days, to polling day. And there's no monolith, such as Fianna Fáil 38 years ago, standing at 59pc in the polls. Re-election of the Government in its current form is probably lost, but with other parties and independents, there is still hope. But only if the Government recovers its nerve and stops soft-soaping the electorate.

The great political thinker Edmund Burke said that "nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government". And, right now, this Government looks pretty feeble.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on at 10am

Sunday Independent

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