Thursday 17 October 2019

John Downing: 'Our hybrid Government is well beyond its sell-by date - but Brexit makes it duty-bound to struggle on'

Brexit, we are increasingly told, is what is keeping the current hybrid and ramshackle Dáil and Government together and in office. Stock photo: Niall Carson/PA
Brexit, we are increasingly told, is what is keeping the current hybrid and ramshackle Dáil and Government together and in office. Stock photo: Niall Carson/PA
John Downing

John Downing

For some of us it has been a very short three years, as the evaporating weeks quickly turned into months and became years. Others will argue that the time has dragged by with leaden feet.

But any way you look at things, this day three years ago we were up to our oxters in the final week of campaigning for "the election that nobody won". In fact on this very day, February 18, 2016, Gerry Adams, still the leader of Sinn Féin, was being grilled on radio by Sean O'Rourke, and telling the nation all he did not know about the Irish economy.

But Gerry Adams was not the only one to struggle with economic issues in this strange and often lacklustre General Election campaign of 2016. Another former leader, Enda Kenny, effectively blew it for Fine Gael from the word go.

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Just hours after the then-Taoiseach made his expected election announcement to Dáil Éireann on February 3, and did a quick scoot to Áras an Uachtaráin to formalise things, Mr Kenny presided at his opening election press conference. This was a confused and diffuse affair with the Fine Gael leader bungling questions about his party's central economic pledge to abolish the unpopular Universal Social Charge (USC) at a cost of €4bn.

Under pressure, Mr Kenny managed to compound things by saying: "I'm not going to get into economic jargon here because the vast majority of people don't understand." Critics were quick to point out that Enda Kenny was the one who did not understand.

Fine Gael was unsuccessfully chasing the game from then on and even its trump card, the ever reliable veteran finance minister Michael Noonan, could not help it rescue things. At the time, this writer foolishly thought its election slogan - "Let's keep the recovery going" - was good.

But this 23-day election campaign, one of the shortest in the State's history, forcefully told us all that the Fine Gael election slogan was far too Dublin-driven. Too many people beyond the Pale felt they had yet to experience the fruits of the fledgling economic recovery.

Cork senator Jerry Buttimer had also warned at the campaign start that the slogan "lacked heart". Fine Gael strategists had expected a reverse in this general election. After all, they had spent the bulk of their term in power continuing to dish out the harsh medicine framed by their predecessor, Fianna Fáil, and also dictated by the IMF-EU-ECB Troika which was "correcting their homework".

But the scale of the Fine Gael losses showed much of it was its own work as it went from a record high of 76 seats in the 2011 election, to just 50 in 2016. There was a huge meltdown for Labour, which also had a historic high of 37 TDs in 2011, but was now reduced to just seven Dáil seats, meaning an overall crushing defeat for the outgoing coalition government.

Labour had wrongly led voters to believe in February 2011 that there was an alternative to austerity. The travails of the party, now led by former public expenditure minister Brendan Howlin, have continued and three years after Election 2016 there is no sign of any real revival in its battered fortunes.

The big winners in this election of three years ago were Independents and the smaller parties, who between them amassed 33 out of the 158 Dáil seats which was an unprecedented high. Sinn Féin also had a good outcome with 14pc of the vote and 23 TDs - but it was far short of the big breakthrough it and some observers had talked up.

Fianna Fáil was the surprise packet of the election in what was a win for the fortitude of its leader, Micheál Martin, who had campaigned strongly throughout. After the worst election in its history in 2011, when it had only 20 TDs, the party returned 44 deputies, just six fewer than Fine Gael.

So much for that stuttering election campaign. It delivered us a serious case of a "hung Dáil".

What followed was even more strange and unprecedented, as we witnessed a slow bicycle race over 70 days to the formation of a minority government, on May 6, 2016, surprisingly led by Fine Gael and Enda Kenny. It included just seven of the 33 Independent TDs and had the support of another two Independents.

Along the way, we got a glimpse of what might have been when, on April 6, Enda Kenny offered Fianna Fáil "a government partnership" with equal numbers of ministerial posts. The idea of a rotating Taoiseach was understood to be part of this - but it was never reached as Fianna Fáil TDs and senators rejected it on April 7. But the idea of deeper collaboration by the two big parties still hangs in the air around Leinster House.

The Government was elected thanks to the abstention of Fianna Fáil in the re-election of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. And the creaky minority coalition has continued to operate by grace and favour of a party which is strangely and uncomfortably half-in and half-out of Government.

This situation has given us repeated scenes reminiscent of a large family where children of a similar age vie for a place in the pecking order. Sinn Féin utterly eschewed any role in Government after February 2016. And it continues to ostensibly attack Fine Gael and the coalition while reserving its particular wrath for Fianna Fáil, which is its real target.

On Sinn Féin's left flank, it is beset by the strong presence of the leftist Solidarity-People Before Profit, which relies on popular disenchantment with the establishment for its support. This grouping has six TDs and has so far avoided the public splits which bedevil far-left groupings.

The Dáil is also characterised by the strong and vocal presence of rural Independents.

These deputies fuel the recurring allegation that the Government is not focussed on rural communities' needs.

So, we have had three years of "new politics" which is slow and diffuse - though sometimes showing the potential of what it might be if there was a better spirit of cross-party co-operation which also embraced highly individualistic Independents.

As we prepared to go to the polls in 2016 we were aware of the threat that became Brexit, though few of us really believed it would come to pass.

It has dominated our politics ever since that fateful Friday morning of June 24, 2016, when a six-week-old Irish Government awoke to a UK referendum result which would form the backdrop to, and centrepiece of, all its subsequent work.

Brexit, we are increasingly told, is what is keeping the current hybrid and ramshackle Dáil and Government together and in office. But three years after the last election, there are growing signs that this situation is definitely past its sell-by date. External circumstances dictate that it must struggle on for some more months.

Irish Independent

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