Labour is out of Government - but it is never truly out of power
In terms of its policy agenda, what is the difference between this Government and the last one? It ought to be a pertinent question because the last government had Labour in it and this one does not.
There are two ways to look at the matter. You could take the view that the reason there is little or no difference is because Labour in government failed to impose its agenda. Or you could take the view that the differences between Labour and Fine Gael are now so small as to be barely noticeable.
The economic policy differences between the two parties amount to Labour wanting a bit more public spending than Fine Gael, and Fine Gael wanting a little less tax. Aside from that, it is hard to see a real difference.
On social issues, the two parties are almost completely ad idem and in a way that is far more advantageous to Labour, because on social issues, Fine Gael's agenda is now basically as liberal/left as Labour's.
Take the issue of child care, for example. This week, Children's Minister Katherine Zappone informed the Cabinet about her plans to roll out an "affordable child-care scheme". This plan will discriminate heavily in favour of day care and against other child-care options, including care at home by a parent.
Ms Zappone is a radical feminist. She wants as many women as possible in the workplace, whether they like it or not, and that means children in day care. Why should Fine Gael support this policy, though? It should be neutral between the various choices parents want to make about the care of their children during the working day.
Last week, Education Minister Richard Bruton announced that he wants to limit the rights of faith schools to admit children of their own faith first in the unlikely event of oversubscription. This is only the latest of a series of attacks on the rights of faith schools begun under Labour education ministers in the last government, and now continued by Fine Gael. Who bumped Mr Bruton into this?
Then there is the matter of abortion. Fine Gael is proceeding with plans to hold an abortion referendum, despite not having Labour in coalition with it. Admittedly, Fine Gael is less enthusiastic about introducing abortion than Labour is, but we'll have a referendum anyway.
The implementation of a Labour-type social agenda does not require Labour being in power because a Labour worldview or tendency is never out of power. Why is this?
One reason is that a lot of senior civil servants appear to support the 'Labour tendency'. We see evidence of this, for instance, in the sort of groups Government departments fund and have friendly dealings with. They are frequently left-wing and never conservative.
A second reason is that so many pressure groups are left-wing and have so many allies in Government departments. It is no accident that Mr Bruton unveiled his plan to change the admissions policy at a meeting of Equate, a left-wing pressure group with almost no real grass-roots support for its campaign against denominational schools.
A third reason is that many journalists have liberal/left social views and bombard politicians with agenda-driven questions on issues like abortion. Fine Gael has found it easier to simply lie down and roll over rather than fight back.
A final reason is that so many academics and lawyers share the same worldview as the Labour party.
What is to be done? I see no prospect of a real pushback against the Labour tendency under present political conditions. Politicians either go along with this tendency or are scared to stand up to it. It will take a 'black swan' event, something as unexpected as Trump or Brexit, to mount a challenge. It will take someone like Ryanair's Michael O'Leary to lose patience with the political system and to decide to shake the whole thing up.
O'Leary has repeatedly said he won't enter politics. If he did, he might end up as Tánaiste, but I think he'd rather die in a ditch than take on that role.
An alternative that might suit him better would be to set up a political platform, one that would campaign on certain issues, build up a big network of support, and then tell its supporters to vote for whichever party comes closest to its positions.
An O'Leary platform would campaign for lower taxes, for better use of public money and would insist on standing up to the public sector unions.
It would in no way, shape or form pander to a politically correct agenda. It would cut every cent of funding to every left-wing pressure group and make them sing for their supper. It might think about starting a debate on the EU and at a minimum on the kind of EU we want to be in. How centralised should it be?
It might even start a debate on immigration because no one ever seems to ask whether immigration is putting pressure on our housing stock, on places in schools and hospitals, or on wages, especially at the lower end of the wage scale, all perfectly legitimate questions.
Anyone leading a platform like this would have to be big and bold enough to stand up to the media and get away with it. Probably the only person in the country who fits that bill is Michael O'Leary. He could mount the first serious challenge to the Labour tendency in Irish Government in a long time. We have to hope that some time in the next few years Mr O'Leary will lose patience with the political system and decide to step into the ring.