Monday 16 September 2019

Ivan Yates: 'FF's soldiers of destiny down arms in 'Cowardice and Surrender' deal'

Risky: Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin is taking a big gamble with the Confidence and Supply extension. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Risky: Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin is taking a big gamble with the Confidence and Supply extension. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

It was perhaps the most significant domestic political event in an uneventful year. Early in the evening of Wednesday, December 12, most of those with even a lazy interest in current affairs would have been preoccupied with the fate of the British PM.

As Theresa May was on her feet before the 1922 committee, voting was about to start in committee room 14 on her leadership survival. She is still standing - or should that be wobbling?

Meanwhile, Micheál Martin spoke during a routine Dáil statement prior to the imminent European Council summit. I had to get a copy of the speech to re-read it.

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As with most of Martin's Dáil deliveries, the content was well worded, reasoned and solid. He argued trenchantly that the Government was failing the country.

He noted our unpreparedness for UK crash-out contingency planning.

He also cited the "systematic failure to deliver on housing and health", and was deeply critical of the Taoiseach's promises of €3bn worth of tax giveaways.

There was also a tongue-lashing for the lack of support for children and the unacceptable politicisation of public spending.

The sidelining of expert agencies and funding decisions relating to culture, rural affairs, local development and research was also mentioned, along with the chronic deficit in delivery and the failure to understand public concerns.

After all that, there was added a significant 'but ...'.

This lacerating litany of criticisms was set at nought by the following declaration: "Fianna Fáil will extend a guarantee that the Government will be able to operate throughout 2019. This will allow the introduction of any emergency legislation and budgets, as well as the full end-of-year budget-associated legislation."

Wow. At one stroke, FF's soldiers of destiny were laying down their arms. The troops were decommissioned, notwithstanding the European and local elections to be held on May 24, 2019.

The previous Fianna Fáil position of no election threat until the Article 50 Brexit deadline date of March 29 was clever. It fitted the narrative of stability and responsibility of national uncertainty.

How it came to hand over an open-ended blank cheque, underwriting Fine Gael power, perks and pension entitlements for ministers, is baffling. Not a single policy measure was announced as part of the Confidence and Supply Agreement renewal. Not even something tokenistic for FF to claim credit for.

One would imagine that the Government's constant claiming of exclusive kudos for good news would have chafed. Not a bit of it.

For Confidence and Supply, read Cowardice and Surrender, or Compliance and Servitude. Never has so much been given by an opposition party in return for so little. The extraordinary act of unconditional generosity dumbfounded gobsmacked, grateful Fine Gael ministers.

On media panel debates when FF spokespersons are challenged to back up their criticisms of Government with the withdrawal of support, they recite the mantra about the post-election scenario of 2016. They tried to form an FF minority government; the country would have been left without any administration while Sinn Féin/Independents sat on their hands.

All valid points, but they are wearing thin with the passage of time. Come 2020, that tale will be tired.

Meanwhile, the brand identity of FF is diminished as a pale imitation of FG.

Take the contentious issue of broadband. If the Government proceeds in January to sign a costly contract with the sole remaining bidder, GMC, Timmy Dooley can bellyache all he likes, but Richard Bruton knows that FF won't bring down the Government.

FF now runs the risk of watching policy proposals on health and housing being lifted by FG and adopted as its own.

Flinging extra billions at both is likely to have some ameliorating impact over the coming 15 months.

More hospital beds and social housing units will be provided from significant extra capital/current spending allocations. Already FG has abandoned tax cuts in favour of following FF's preference of caring and sharing over reducing burdens on the squeezed middle.

Sinn Féin, Labour, the Greens, Social Democrats and opposition Independents can step up hostilities against Leo's crew in the certain knowledge there will be no election.

TDs relish a 2019 election about as much as turkeys anticipate next Tuesday's dinner menu. The costs and uncertainty of a campaign are dreaded - hence the muted response amongst FF TDs.

Yet the FF grassroots betray a sense of bewilderment at the unnecessary closing-off of electoral options and the suspension of hostilities.

One seasoned veteran strategist described the decision as the "death knell" of the party.

Perhaps overzealous tribal warriors are living in the past, but make no mistake, when it comes to putting up posters, knocking on doors and wearing out shoe leather, it will be those people rather than leader writers in newspapers who will be relied upon to rally to the cause.

One critical consideration for Micheál Martin was the prospect of the local elections procuring a new slate of public representatives that could credibly run as general election candidates. This particularly applies in Dublin, where they need to win six additional seats, as well as second seat contenders around the country. Strong, dynamic, youthful personalities can add a thousand votes, but it's secondary to the top-line market share brand rating.

The dark clouds on the industrial public sector pay front are also menacing. Next year, we can anticipate the nurses' organisations, the INMO and the PNA, following up on their voted mandate for strike action.

Strikes are also threatened for pay parity among the INTO and ASTI cohorts of teachers.

The stand-off will get political. Opposition parties will opportunistically play for compromise concessions.

However, FF is handcuffed into maintaining the tight fiscal lines of the existing public sector pay agreement.

Its critics accuse it of cravenly dodging an election on the grounds of fearing a Brexit bounce for Leo.

His hard line against the Brits, facing down the old enemy and humiliating them on the backstop, is populist while FF's "national interest" mantra masks a fear of Varadkar calling a snap election, buoyed by opinion poll leads.

Were it not for the paralysis at Westminster, he would be gone to the Park by now.

The hypothesis that after nine consecutive years in office, voters will grow weary of FG, or the 'something will turn up' strategy to derail the Government, are valid.

Time will tell. However, the Confidence and Supply Agreement renewal was a high-stakes unnecessary gamble by Martin, who is nearing a last throw of the dice for the Taoiseach's office.

Irish Independent

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