Sunday 21 July 2019

Politicians have missed the public mood shift on Bertie and the Pope

Water charges are dead as a political issue and demands for pay increases in the public sector are too much, too soon

Movement: Demonstrators march along Parliament Street in Dublin during an anti-water charges protest in the city last summer Photo: Tony Gavin
Movement: Demonstrators march along Parliament Street in Dublin during an anti-water charges protest in the city last summer Photo: Tony Gavin
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Here is one way to judge the public mood: look for discarded cigarette butts - if they are smoked to the butt, the mood is bad; if not to the butt, it is better; and if longer still, it is good.

That may seem a daft method to tell how the country's economy is doing, but the public mood and the state of the economy, represented by the price of a packet of fags, are linked.

The theory was originally that of Maury Graham, King of the Hobos, who rode the railways during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Political sophisticates - with a range of opinions, an amount of information, a consistency of attitude, and level of conceptualisation - will baulk, but what do they know? These are the people who talk at each other on Twitter, gave us "Let's keep the recovery going", and paid their water charges.

They are no wiser and have no greater level of insight into the public mood than anybody else, and in some cases far less.

Right now, the body politic is anxious to read that mood on four issues: water charges, public sector pay, the visit of Pope Francis, and the proposed return of Bertie Ahern to Fianna Fail.

Time was political parties were good at reading the mood, but lost their way when they got more caught up in the witchcraft of opinion polls and focus groups.

This is what I believe to be the mood: still opposed to both water charges, and pursuing those who have not paid; not necessarily opposed to public sector pay rises, but not at the expense of public services; in support of the Pope's visit, and agnostic on the issue of Bertie's return. Fianna Fail supporters, however, would like to see Bertie back before the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in just over a year's time.

Now let us look at those issues more closely. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are still anxious as to the public mood on water charges, as are other parties - with good reason.

But Fine Gael is already calling the mood wrong. Quelle surprise. That mood is not to pursue those who have not paid, nor necessarily to repay those who have. It is to leave the issue be for a few years, a decade or so. As long as water bills are not coming through the door, this issue is over. The smart political move would be to leave well alone, for a while.

But as this issue must be resolved, because the expert commission said it must, then to repay is less politically troublesome than to haul a million people through the courts, chained to railings in protest while the TV cameras look on.

A majority of those who have paid are Fine Gael supporters, so Fine Gael is playing to its own in threatening to pursue those who have not paid. The subtext is a a certain contempt for the working and welfare classes, when in fact vast swathes of the middle class also opposed water charges.

Michael Noonan has finally got this. He said as much last week. He also said the State can afford to suck it up for a while, that is, to bankroll Irish Water.

For its part, Fianna Fail is really hoping everybody moves on. But if a political issue continues to be made out of water charges, then Fianna Fail will eventually drive a stake through the heart of the entire regime.

Sinn Fein and the far left remain most anxious to keep the issue alive. Protest meetings about Donald Trump and Repeal the Eighth do not have the same traction. Here is a note to the 'populists': protests over a swimming pool tax, which is how the water charges regime will end up after the deliberations of the special Oireachtas committee, will have no traction at all.

Bottom line: water charges are over as a political, if not an environmental issue; leave alone those who have not paid and, in time - a few years - repay in instalments those who have paid, so that they may have an unexpected dinner out on the State. Then return to this issue with a more coherent policy in a decade's time.

Public sector pay is more complicated, because the unions have more influence than the water charges protest movement does right now, but Kevin Duffy, the man who ended water charges, has moved on to public sector pay. So this issue will also be resolved.

That said, the public mood is not necessarily against the public sector unions insofar as I can detect. In fact, there is some admiration for their stance, that would grow if proposed pay increases in the order of 4pc were also to be applied across the private sector.

However, the overriding mood is that public services should not be cut at all to afford paying such increases. Therefore, the unions are running the risk of losing what support they have if they push their case too far, too fast.

There is authoritative research on this issue - a Cambridge University Press study, Public Mood and Political Sophistication: Why Everybody Moves Mood. It concludes that mood is a function of the same broad causal processes.

The least politically sophisticated receive the same general messages (about the economy) as the most sophisticated, and use this information to update their opinions in the same way. So, the working and welfare classes have registered Brexit, for example, and how it might affect them. Bottom line: fix t he economy, then public services, and only after that public and private pay rises together.

For an astute politician, who scarcely deserves all the criticism he receives, Shane Ross has called the public mood wrong in relation to the visit of Pope Francis. To his credit, Enda Kenny has called it right. Then again, when it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, Kenny has seldom called it wrong.

In my view, the public mood is in favour of the Pope's visit. He is a popular man who has drawn, or is drawing back, Catholics to the Church. To try to follow the teachings of Jesus is not necessarily a bad way to lead one's life after all.

Ross has related his concerns about the visit to a possible abortion referendum. This is to wrongly suggest that the Church should not be allowed to seek to influence the outcome of such a referendum. Progressives who advocate repeal will continue to make their case, with their usual robustness.

Meanwhile, Middle Ireland will watch and listen with interest to what the Pope has to say and what he does. He should wash the feet of those sexually abused to signify the Church's humble service and extreme humility.

An account goes that the state of the economy could be gauged according to the mood of GAA supporters in Fagan's pub in Drumcondra after a Dubs match. That's Bertie's local.

At the start of the Great Recession he was abused, then ignored, then tolerated, then welcomed with a nod of the head. When Dublin won the All-Ireland two years ago, supporters are said to have queued to take selfies with him.

In recent times, he has sought to further rehabilitate himself in the public mood, with some success. However, he may have mistaken that success with his rehabilitation being complete.

Then again, Bertie Ahern rarely misjudges the public mood. He put his toe further into the water last week and, in a public humiliation, Micheal Martin told him the water was still cold. Bottom line: the way in which this was matter handled, on both sides, was unedifying to say the least.

At a human level, there is good regard for Bertie Ahern among the public, and such regard should not be disregarded lightly. Fianna Fail could also do with his political nous in north Dublin and Dublin in general. Were he to canvass for his favoured candidate in Dublin Central at the next election, few would object - fewer still would close the door in his face.

Like water charges, and public sector pay rises, however, the mooted full return of Bertie Ahern to Fianna Fail may have come a little too soon, maybe by six months to a year, but it will happen sooner or later; nor should he be asked to wash the feet of his detractors.

He has done the State a service, and, when the time comes, Micheal Martin must do the decent thing by Bertie Ahern, and the country, certainly before the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 2018.

Sunday Independent

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