MANY public figures will be glad to see the back of 2016, given the kind of unpredictable year it proved to be. When one thinks back to this time last year, common public perceptions included that the upcoming Irish general election was Fine Gael’s to lose, that there was only a small chance that Britain would vote to leave the European Union and that the possibility of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States of America was remote.
Political change was the common clarion call of people across western society who are lucky enough to be able to vote, but the type of change has not been clearly defined as the only thing voters seem to be sure about is that the establishment party politicians are not serving them, as they should be. Voters feel that they and their concerns are not being listened to and there is a growing disconnect between them and their elected representatives.
This was vividly illustrated here in Ireland by Fine Gael’s main election slogan, ‘Let’s keep the recovery going,’ which was based on the assumption that everybody had benefitted from the economic recovery. Clearly, their backroom people were not in touch with what was going on beyond the Pale and did not seem to realise that the recovery was unevenly distributed among the people and had not reached vast areas of rural Ireland.
Tired of establishment party figures trotting out insulting platitudes to them, there was a trend towards voting for independent candidates in the general election and gains were made at the expense of the outgoing government parties, as was the case in Cork South West where Fine Gael’s Noel Harrington and the Labour Party’s Michael McCarthy lost their seats to poll topper Margaret Murphy-O’Mahony of Fianna Fáil and independent Michael Collins, while Fine Gael’s Jim Daly was the only outgoing TD to retain his seat there. This has utterly changed the political landscape and is a microcosm of what happened nationally, which has led to a stalemate, with Fianna Fáil propping up an unsteady minority government, comprising Fine Gael and a motley crew of unpredictable independents, after what was described as ‘the election that nobody won.’
The unprecedented scenario of Fianna Fáil being the tail that wags the Fine Gael-led government dog has grated with many on both sides of what is only now a tribal divide between them, as – ideologically – they are virtually indistinguishable, but fading traces of the Civil War politics cordite still clings to their hardliners. Political pragmatism was at the root of this arrangement, which is meant to last for three years, but could unravel at any time with Fianna Fáil holding the trump cards.
The need for political stability with Brexit looming is one factor holding the government together, but both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil know full well that going to the country any time soon, if the opinion polls are to be believed, would not radically alter the arithmetic and a similar stalemate would probably result.
What annoys a lot of people about the current arrangements is that they have been dressed up as ‘new politics.’ This is rubbish.
The real reason Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are co-operating on holding this minority government together is to buy some time – for the former to figure out how they can reverse the losses inflicted on them in the general election and for the latter to work out how to build further on their comeback from the political wilderness. In both cases, it is putting the interests of their parties before those of the country; unashamed political expediency which should certainly not be classed as ‘new politics.’
One thing that is really going to test their credibility in the coming months is the issue of water charges and this could be the making or breaking of the government. What odds the whole thing ending in a fudge?
This would typify all that is bad about the current arrangement – a weak government lacking in decisive leadership, which is certainly not what the leaders of the 1916 rising envisaged for the country when they sacrificed their lives for it a century ago.