Wednesday 20 March 2019

Hot heads need to realise that an election will change little

We don't think of Leo as cynical - but his latest haggling with Micheal Martin looks just that, writes Willie Kealy

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Collins
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Collins

Willie Kealy

Was that an example of new politics when the Taoiseach offered to sit down with the leader of the Opposition to work out a new "confidence and supply" deal and agree the date of the next election?

We don't like to think of the young Leo Varadkar as cynical, but Micheal Martin did already tell him only weeks ago that this wasn't going to happen, at least not this side of October 9 - Budget Day.

And then there is all this talk - from both sides - about how nobody wants an election right now. Yes, Fianna Fail could pull the plug on the Government at any time, and cause an election.

Equally, the Taoiseach could go to the country whenever he chooses - though he has committed to not doing so "next week or the week after", for what that's worth. Over recent months all the vibes about a possible snap election have been coming from Fine Gael.

But actually it is not about who ends the life of this Government and precipitates an election. It is about who gets the blame.

So the more Mr Varadkar can portray himself as Mr Reasonable, trying to negotiate with an intransigent Micheal Martin, the more he can hope to gain the public sympathy.

Most commentators seem to think that if the Taoiseach is willing to wait for Mr Martin to re-negotiate the agreement, then Fianna Fail will renew. But why should it, and would it be any better off facing the electorate in 2020 than it is now?

When Mr Martin was asked about his support for the Government last week, he gave the impression that it has been pretty much a waste of time. He was critical of the Government's performance on the two big issues of the day - the health service and the housing crisis.

The only justification he could think of was that he had given the Government the time and space to get on with the Brexit negotiations. Which, when you think of it, was another way of saying that if the Brexit talks go badly, Fine Gael should be blamed for that, too.

But the first phase of the Brexit talks will not go on forever, certainly not till 2020. Come November we should have a clear idea whether there is a deal or no deal.

And if, as seems likely, there is a prolonged period of transition, would it matter that much if somebody other than Simon Coveney was handling matters at this end?

These are crucial days for Fianna Fail. For now, it continues in the role of de facto government partner to Fine Gael without the downside of direct responsibility. It approaches the Budget with nothing to lose because it can blame Paschal Donohoe for anything unpopular. It goes through the charade of negotiating the content of the Bbudget when really much of what it will contain is known and the scope for any discretionary announcements is very limited.

The Government is planning to increase the existing €200bn deficit next year, but is hoping to get into surplus by 2020 - just in time for Leo's preferred election date.

But with social welfare increases and some small tax cuts to be paid for, and the latest tax revenues disappointing, and the cost of the expanding public service set to rise again, the warnings to be cautious from the Department of Finance and the Central Bank governor, and no doubt soon to come from the ESRI, cannot be ignored.

This is especially true for Fianna Fail who, it has not been forgotten, was the party in power at the start of the last recession. Next time that "economic shock" could come courtesy of a disastrous Brexit outcome. But it must still make its mark.

It won't do that just by supporting causes such as rural post offices which no longer make economic sense and can only work, in existing premises, as an add-on like Lotto tickets or a 99 ice-cream machine.

The main opposition party needs to be bold and not show its timid side as it did when leaving the presidential election field clear for a Sinn Fein party that is still trying to cleanse itself of the stink of Gerry Adams. (In fairness, Fine Gael made the same mistake).

It must come out fighting on the big issues. When Leo Varadkar as much as said that social housing was an issue to be dealt with - and paid for - by the local authorities, he left himself and his Government wide open for a full frontal assault.

And on the health services, the Opposition will need to be creative in their thinking, because we have reached the stage where just throwing more and more money at the problem does not seem to produce solutions. Start with a simple target - reducing waiting lists - and work back from there.

Looking for a new treatment purchase scheme was a good start. Broadband and childcare are huge issues and so too is climate change which voters actually do care about if only because they are nagged about it constantly by their children and grandchildren.

In the meantime, if they are afire with election fever, hot heads in both of the major parties might cool themselves with the certainty that while they were not that far apart after the last election - neither got enough seats to form a government - the situation is not so different now. And if there was an election tomorrow, it probably wouldn't change much either.

Which would leave Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin in a less-than-enviable position - exactly where they are now.

Sunday Independent

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