Monday 21 October 2019

Mary O'Rourke: 'Let's halt the party war drums and start to listen instead'

As the election dust settles, politicians from all sides need civility and realism to face the challenges ahead, writes Mary O'Rourke

Maria Walsh at the Castlebar count centre. Photo: Mark Condren
Maria Walsh at the Castlebar count centre. Photo: Mark Condren

So, two weeks on from the European and local elections, and the clamour and excitement has died down. But huge questions remain.

It is clear in the European elections Fine Gael had some stunning successes, not least the election of Maria Walsh in the Midlands North-West constituency. She came from nowhere, and with decent marketing and a good personality, as time went on she emerged as a likely winner, which she proved to be. I'm not going to be miserly: well done to you, Maria Walsh.

Let's switch to the local scene. There, it is clearly Fianna Fail's turn to feel pleased about themselves and how their local candidates fared. As was reported in the pages of this newspaper over the past number of months, Fianna Fail turned out to be the largest party at local level, building on their prior success in the local elections of 2014.

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Each county and city borough is now peopled with strong, determined candidates, some of whom, no doubt, will be likely runners and winners in the next general election, whenever it occurs.

In the meantime, it is up to each of them to see how they can use the powers they have been given (limited though they are) to forge ahead with plans for their city, electoral area, or county. There is much work to be done on local authority reform, and we await the government report from Minister John Paul Phelan, which is due for publication in the latter months of this year.

And, of course, the Greens have done well. Whether you call it a ''surge'' or a ''wave'' or whatever, there are now Green local councillors in many areas around Ireland. Here in Westmeath, we have two duly elected Green councillors. I have no doubt that they will contribute mightily to the local agenda, and we will be watching and waiting these developments with great interest.

So now, back to the future electoral landscape here in Ireland. Armed with his local election successes, Micheal Martin will hear the siren calls on him to call an election. Let there be no doubt about it, the candidates on the local election trail all reported from strong Fianna Fail households that voters said to them: when are Fianna Fail going to call an election? When are we going to be free from what was often called the ''sham'' confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael? Each night when the canvassing was over we heard those calls, and there were too many of them to be disregarded.

Allied to that, the first round of the election results was barely over when we heard Leo Varadkar speaking, albeit tentatively, about the possible imminence of a general election, which was answered immediately by Micheal Martin in a practical tone, saying Fianna Fail had made an arrangement with Fine Gael to see in the Budget in October, and after that presumably it would be open season.

On this point, if I can be permitted, both from experience and political longevity, to give a word of warning to our Taoiseach: stop calling on the threat of a general election whenever the thought strikes you. I note you did so recently, and after that you apologised to your Fine Gael Parliamentary Party that you didn't really mean it that way, that you didn't want a general election.

This phoney warfare, instigated on each occasion by Fine Gael, will have to be called off if the two parties agree to survive the late summer/early autumn until the Budget. So, to the Fine Gael party I would say: stop the warfare drums of the threat of an early election, until the situation clarifies itself. You will hopefully be sufficiently subdued by the local result to cry off the threat of an election whenever the mood or the latest poll strikes you that now would be an opportune time.

If there is to be no immediate general election, then the question arises of the four by-elections which by law must be held by the end of November - that is, the by-elections to fill the seat of Billy Kelleher in Cork, Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin, Clare Daly in another Dublin constituency, and Mick Wallace in Wexford. Four by-elections, with all of the attendant trauma and loud warfare which will accompany those four separate contests, and all in the dreary November weather.

Yes, we are in a perilous political situation. The recent decent elections which we have had in this country, carried out in a democratic manner, bear no resemblance to the chaotic carry-ons of the political system in the UK. The Conservatives are all over the place.

Labour are all over the place. Right now, the Brexit Party and Farage ride triumphant with the Liberal Democrats in their wake. Who knows who will emerge as the Conservative leader, and therefore prime minister, in the next few months?

On that depends Ireland's future. If it is Boris or any of the other ardent Brexiteers, then the sober forecast of the Minister for Finance of what will happen in a ''hard deal'' or a ''no-deal'' outcome will have its repercussions here in Ireland. No mistake about it, that is a serious possibility. So far, three or four of the would-be candidates in the UK have declared that they will leave with no deal. Now, whether that is achieved or not is another matter, but it does point up a perilous path strewn with unknown disastrous pitfalls for Ireland.

So the road ahead is not clear politically. If there is to be a temporary truce, and Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin come to an accommodation to allow of the forthcoming October Budget, it must be clear that the rules of war are laid out.

To my mind, there should be no megaphone diplomacy initiated by Leo Varadkar, with its need to be answered by Micheal Martin. After all, what happened to the humble telephone? Why don't Leo and Micheal agree some course of action for the months ahead based on common civility, laced with political acumen, and, above all, realism?

Ahead we have the three Bs - the Budget, Brexit, and the By-elections - all facing us in the coming months. Fianna Fail is armed with a quiet confidence from the success of their local elections, and with honesty on both sides from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, we have to navigate the upcoming challenges.

To sound a quixotic political note, let's find empathy for Barry Andrews, the successful candidate for Fianna Fail in Dublin, albeit with a seat in cold storage where he will remain until the Brexit question is somewhat settled.

He, of course, must wish the UK would leave Europe quickly. Ireland, on the other hand, hopes that perhaps the UK will never leave. But that's a story for another date.

Sunday Independent

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