POLITICIANS, no matter what their hue, have an annoying tendency to put themselves and their parties before everything else when the going gets tough, leaving the country and its people that they are elected to serve on the back burner. This time, Fine Gael is the guilty party with the internal focus for the next two months on a leadership contest that has already begun behind the scenes, despite the fact that members are still waiting for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to ‘conclusively’ address his position, which he won’t be doing until after he returns from the United States, having fulfilled his St Patrick’s Day engagements there.
If – or rather when, as most people expect – he declares his intention to step down as party leader, an election process that is likely to take three weeks will virtually fully occupy the attention of the candidates, probably all senior ministers, so they won’t be able to concentrate as fully on their portfolios as they should do. This is the last thing that the country needs now, given how little has already been done, legislatively, by this fragile minority government.
All of this is likely to be going on in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s expected triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty with a view to implementing last year’s referendum decision by its people to leave the European Union. Given that Ireland looks set to be the country to suffer most from the fall-out of this Brexit decision, strong leadership was never more important than it is now, but who is going to provide it?
Cynically, Fianna Fáil seems content to let Fine Gael convulse with its leadership problems – which is also putting party before country, as it has done so many times in the past itself – making it a party also to the paucity of decisive governance. Micheál Martin and his colleagues could pull the plug on the current government right now if they wanted to, but it obviously does not suit their political ends, citing their belief that nobody wants an election at this point in time and emphasising that they are committed to the ‘supply and confidence’ agreement that they have with this government.
No doubt, when it suits them, Fianna Fáilers won’t have any compunction about bringing down the government with a view towards enhancing their own standing. The main opposition party is well ahead of Fine Gael in the political opinion polls at present, but that could all change if a new leader manages to breathe fresh life into the biggest party in the Dáil at present.
In the meantime, our country is likely to be running on automatic pilot, which is not a good thing, given all the issues that will be confronting it over the coming months, especially long-term problems such as homelessness and the public health service that are not being tackled as effectively as they should be. Then, we have the spectre of growing industrial unrest, with nurses set to go on a strict work to rule from next week and the threat of a strike in Bus Éireann that could grind our public transport service to a halt and which would have a disproportionately-severe effect on rural areas.
However, our participation in and close monitoring of the upcoming Brexit talks between Britain and the European Union are also so vital that we need to be at the top of our game in order to ensure the best outcome for this country. Having spurned calls to appoint a minister with responsibility for Brexit and taken on the job himself, it will be somewhat ironic if Enda Kenny walks away just as the talks are about to commence, especially as he seems to have got such a good handle on the subject, as he illustrated in quite a fine speech he gave the week before last at the Mansion House in Dublin to the Institute for International and European Affairs, reiterating that ‘our values are European values.’
Acknowledging that the foundation of Ireland’s prosperity and the bedrock of our modern society is our membership of the European Union, the Taoiseach declared: ‘We must remain at the heart of Europe and open to the world,’ adding that ‘We must protect the hard-won peace on our island.’ Mr Kenny showed that, when he stays on message, he can be quite statesmanlike.
However, a bad bout of indecisiveness surrounding the Garda whistle-blowers’ controversy was the final straw for impatient colleagues in Fine Gael whose concern over the state of their party seems to outweigh the greater good of the country. So, we are where we are now – and certainly not in a good place.