TALKS on the formation of a new government were at an advanced stage as we went to press with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil negotiators on the point of agreeing the outline of a programme for government behind the scenes as the chaotic Covid-19 coronavirus crisis looks set to peak in Ireland this Easter weekend. It was hardly surprising that FG and FF should be able to agree such a document given how similar to one another they are policy-wise.
With so much bad stuff going on across the world and an estimated half of mankind currently in some form of lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, people just don’t care – or even want to know – about the tribal differences between FG and FF, which must seem rather petty now in the greater scheme of things.
Notwithstanding the fact that Fine Gael, in particular, were roundly rejected by voters in the recent general election and that Fianna Fáil also lost a number of seats, this is not the government that the electorate thought they were going to get. While Sinn Féin garnered the greatest number of first preference votes in Election 2020, this did not transfer into enough Dáil seats for them to, realistically, lead a government in spite of their burning desire to do so.
Fianna Fáil won the greatest number of seats, 38, but only just, with Sinn Féin winning 37 and Fine Gael 35. As neither FF or FG want to do business with SF and, with Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl (FF) out of the equation and the Green Party’s preference for a national government ruled out, for the purposes of forming a government, the combined total of 72 seats held by FF and FG is eight short of the minimum of 80 needed.
This week, the two prospective coalition partners will be in talks with some of the smaller parties and an assortment of independents with a view towards getting the necessary support and commitment to form a majority government. This will certainly be a different government, if agreed, to anything the country has ever seen before if the two big opposing parties spawned by the Irish civil war of almost 100 years ago throw in their lot together and because of the likelihood of a rotating Taoiseach with FF and FG sharing the duties.
Even though Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was in pole position in the aftermath of the general election, having won the most seats, and Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar looked to be heading for the opposition benches after their further electoral losses, the latter was given an unlikely popularity boost with the arrival of the Covid-19 virus in the country, as he rose to the challenge of trying to slow down its spread. Acting Taoiseach Varadkar’s political renaissance was copper-fastened by his statesmanlike address to the nation on St Patrick’s Day.
By following the advice of the medical experts and acting decisively on it, the government has put Ireland in the best place it can be to face the big surge of confirmed cases and deaths about to hit the country as the spread of the virus, hopefully, peaks around now and then begins to loosen its deadly grip on the population in the coming weeks, so that life can gradually start returning to some sort of normality.
Bold decisions have been taken by the acting government in the face of the pandemic with things they previously said could not be done, such as a rent freeze, being imposed. Thousands more hospital beds of all kinds – from intensive care to step-down beds – were provided to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, private hospitals were taken over by the government and young doctors that we had educated in this country returned from abroad to help out.
Millions have been paid out in welfare benefits and employment subsidies to help those whose jobs have suddenly been lost or threatened as a result of the shut-down measures to try to slow the spread of the virus. It has been a case of needs must to do whatever is needed.
People have seen political leadership with a can-do attitude and they, quite reasonably, should expect similar pragmatism from the incoming government when it assumes power. For years, successive governments – even in the economic good times – have let our healthcare and housing crises get worse because of a lack of political will to face down vested interests.
The ability to take decisive decisions has been illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic so far. We cannot let our public healthcare system revert to being like a rabbit dazzled by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle and frozen to the spot.
Such inertia should not be tolerated by the new government. With more beds and medical personnel available, they should be used and, while the cost of doing so will be inevitably be higher, most people would gladly pay more in taxes if they felt they could be assured of a fit-for-purpose service without the chronic overcrowding at emergency departments and seemingly never-ending waiting lists for consultant appointments and treatment.
We simply cannot afford to return to the same old same old.