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Irish Politics

Latest poll shows a weak-kneed government in office but not in power

Unless something very dramatic happens, we are looking towards another minority government led either by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and dependent upon a rag-bag of left and far left TDs for its existence after the next General Election. 

Today’s Sunday Business Post Red C poll has the “civil war” parties each enjoying the support of one-quarter of voters, give or take the margin of error.  Between them they have just about half of voter support.  The hard left, including Sinn Fein, Solidarity-PBP and other also-rans enjoy the support of about a quarter of voters. 

All of this suggests a prolongation of the politics of paralysis. 

In the immediate aftermath of the last election, I wrote here about the appalling weakness we were likely to see from a minority government. And so it has come to pass.  Our parliament is barely ticking over in terms of legislation and reform.  The legislative output of the Oireachtas has nosedived.  A weak-kneed government is in office but not in power. 

Fine Gael parliamentarians plumped for Leo Varadkar in the hope that he would somehow bump up their flagging poll support and win a greater share of the popular vote than Enda Kenny managed a year ago. 

With the political spotlight focused on the internal Fine Gael leadership contest, there was a temporary boost in the aftermath of Leo’s victory.  But, sadly for Fine Gael, their support level is reverting to that of Enda Kenny’s party -  and the “Leo Bump” has turned out to be somewhat of a dead cat bounce.

While today’s poll results strongly suggest that neither FG nor FF will pull the plug and go to the country in the short term, the longer term implications for Irish democracy are far more ominous.

Unlike Germany, where the two largest parties have governed in an uneasy coalition, Ireland’s particular political culture has created a fear within FF and FG that coalition between them would spell the end for one or other of them and hand leadership of the opposition to a Sinn Fein government in waiting.

Many FF TDs believe that their party would be particularly damaged by a coalition with FG because, at some level, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein are competing for the same segment of the electorate.  FF TDs believe that they, rather than FG, would be the big losers in a grand coalition. 

Another aspect of the same paralytic culture is the quasi-tribal element in both FF and FG which largely regards each party’s raison d’etre as “not being the other”. 

If FF and FG effectively rule out a grand coalition in advance of the next general election, middle Ireland will be faced with a continuation of the appalling “new politics” into the indefinite future or, worse still for middle Ireland, increased leverage for the far left over the powers of government as supporters of FF or FG minority governments.

Although some FF TDs, such as Eamon O’Cuiv, apparently hanker after an FF/SF coalition, Micheal Martin knows well that such a prospect would scarify his supporters on the middle ground of Irish politics.  Accordingly, Martin’s only electoral strategy is to rule out coalition with either FG or SF (a stance which he has rigidly adopted up to now). 

This bleak scenario could open the door for the emergence of a new political grouping which would sell itself to middle Ireland as a competent and willing potential partner for either FF or FG or as a partner in a three-way coalition including FF and FG.

If such a grouping were to obtain a seat in just half of our constituencies, the makings of a credible and competent new government would be available to the Irish voters.

Some may say that times are not auspicious for the emergence of such a new grouping and might point to the dismal performance of the Social Democrats and Renua to throw cold water on the idea.

But whatever factors militated against the success of those groupings, there still is an immense opportunity to put in place the driving component of a new government and to end the flaccid era of the so-called “new politics”.

Today’s poll  suggests that a weak Irish government will remain in office for the next 18 months at least.  Gathering economic clouds and a lack of buoyancy in the tax system coupled with increased demands for current spending on social programmes, such as education and health, and increased demands for infrastructural expenditure, such as social housing, all suggest that the next two budgets will be far from exciting in terms of substantial relief for the hard working coping classes. 

Theresa May’s electoral “defeat”, which ended with her leading the largest party back into power, demonstrated, to my mind, that the Tories “offer” to the electorate of sustained austerity and belt-tightening is politically unsaleable. 

Corbyn’s cornucopia of promises, rhetoric and a sprinkling of hope rescued him from disaster, solidified his grip on the Labour party and has produced the frightening scenario (from a Tory point of view) that the Conservatives could lose the next election to a party that seemed unelectable just four months ago.

The Irish hard Left have drawn considerable solace from Corbyn’s remarkable Lazarus-like recovery.But the Left and hard Left in Ireland are nowhere near obtaining a parliamentary majority.  They have less than one-third of voters’ support. 

It was fascinating to watch Solidarity PBP attempting to milk the acquittal of the Jobstown Six for political advantage.  What should have been a minor matter involving the invocation of the Public Order Act of 1994, the use of police powers under that Act and a possible prosecution in the District Court, ended up in the somewhat ridiculous ten week trial on a charge carrying a maximum life sentence. 

There are big questions for the decision-making process, within an Garda Siochana, and the DPP’s office, arising out of the Jobstown fiasco.  We don’t need a public inquiry to tell us that it was a fiasco – we know that.  We don’t need a public inquiry to establish the obvious truth – that the somewhat thuggish behaviour of water campaign protesters was very badly policed and that the overblown legal strategy was bound to play into the hands of Paul Murphy and his fellow would-be martyrs for the cause of “street politics”.

Leo Varadkar was foolish to speculate about gardaí lying under oath.  Paul Murphy must have been smiling as Varadkar played into his hands on Prime Time this week.

This episode shows that we need to rethink completely the ridiculous pretence that policing in Ireland is somehow accountable to an independent policing authority.  The best accountability for policing in Ireland is to be obtained through parliament.  Ministerial accountability to parliamentary committees is the best way forward. 

Leo Varadkar struck a chord with the Irish people when he rejected the term “disgusting” for the garda whistle-blowers and suggested, instead, the word “distinguished”.

But now, as Taoiseach, the buck stops with Leo.  A demoralised and dejected police force is an urgent political problem for his administration. 

The Public Accounts Committee has exposed the rot at the heart of the current garda leadership.  Failure to deal with the issue and to grasp the nettle almost brought down Enda Kenny and the last government. 

With new ministers in place, Leo can score a major political goal on the policing issue.  He has an open goal.  But for some reason he is hesitating to do what is required. Such hesitation may turn out to be fatal in terms of his standing in the eyes of the electorate.

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