Amid mounting crises, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael lack a plan to steady the ship and reassure voters
Those people lucky enough to get through the chaos in Dublin Airport to their holidays might wonder if they really want to get home.
There is a sense that everything in Ireland is in crisis. There is a housing crisis, a cost-of-living crisis, childcare crisis, and a climate crisis. Soon we’ll have a euro crisis. The chaos in Dublin Airport might just be a metaphor for the country.
Most of these crises aren’t unique to Ireland, and their causes are far beyond our control, but as the Government celebrates two years in office this month, there is a sense that people are just fed up and want a change.
That’s odd in ways, because the Government has been fairly competent over the last two years. After its calamitous opening month, when it lost two ministers and endured an outbreak of Fianna Fáil infighting, Micheál Martin has presided over one of the calmest coalition governments Ireland has ever had.
Think back to any coalition government here and you’ll remember a near-constant threat of collapse as stories of coalition battles filled newspapers. But no such stories abound for this Government.
The Greens are perhaps the most surprising of the Coalition parties — as their ministers appear to be enjoying office. When two Green TDs supported an opposition motion, the rest of the parliamentary party quickly agreed to remove their whip. The two TDs quietly accepted. No drama.
In a sea of crisis, this Government exudes calm. However, that might be its problem. Because when we seem to be overwhelmed by crises, the calmness suggests a lack of interest and absence of ideas. And that might be a reasonable conclusion.
A number of Fianna Fáil TDs have privately and publicly wondered what Fianna Fáil stands for. They couldn’t pinpoint what it was for, in the way it was easy to say what Sinn Féin or the Green Party stand for. Fine Gael TDs might ask the same about their party.
Throughout the Covid pandemic, the Government handed over control of policy to technocrats.
While this might have seemed like a good idea — you don’t want angry amateurs flying planes or designing bridges — it also meant they were almost never challenged, even when the public health professionals were slow to adopt new ideas like masking or antigen testing.
Only a government that had ceded control to technocrats would have implemented minimum unit pricing for alcohol, which has increased the price of drinking for most people.
It is a measure that had very little to offer people, but was pushed with religious zeal by the anti-alcohol campaigners that have captured public health officials here. Unsurprisingly, evidence from Scotland last week shows it hasn’t worked, making the group it targeted worse off.
The Fianna Fáil of old would never have introduced a measure that increased the price of a few drinks. It would not have been that stupid, especially when its introduction coincided with increased inflation.
With the most important crisis now, the housing crisis (which is really a rental crisis), the Government doesn’t appear to have many ideas. The Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael of old wouldn’t have gone along with the regulatory measures demanded by opposition parties that drove small landlords from the market.
But because these parties don’t have many convictions anymore, they don’t have the courage to oppose silly ideas from the opposition that have the superficial attractiveness of being well-meaning.
The Gender Pay Gap Information Act sailed through the Oireachtas with government support. The Government didn’t have the courage to point out it would do nothing to address the problem, because those who proposed the legislation don’t understand the problem.
We’ll get the same with proposed hate crime legislation. The Government will toe the line, as it is afraid to point out that such legislation is pointless. Meanwhile, they ignore the fact that streets feel much less safe. Government strategy, if it is that, is to not appear conservative for fear of scaring away young voters.
Of course, young voters only really care about the rents they have to pay or the prospects they have for buying a house. Sinn Féin keep banging out the same tune — that they’ll build loads of public housing, bring in rent freezes, and give cash payments for renters to boot.
It may not work, but at least it’s easy for voters to get. What is the Government’s housing policy in one line? Or even a single paragraph?
As polls show, very few people feel the Government is competent to deal with this problem. But it’s worse than that. Even if the housing crisis were to moderate in time for the next election, you get the impression the electorate has made up its mind. It wants this Government out.
That fear might help keep this Government together for a while longer, but as an election approaches there will be more incentive for TDs and Coalition parties to break ranks. And without Micheál Martin’s calming influence we might get some chaos at the heart of Government again.
Eoin O’Malley teaches politics and policy at Dublin City University