A REPORT card on the first year in office of the current minority government would not inspire much confidence in them, as the new style of politics they promised has not materialised. There are elements of Groundhog Day as we keep waking up to the same old same old, with the Fine Gael-led, but Fianna Fáil-controlled administration, mainly pre-occupied with doing everything it can to avoid an early general election.
Enda Kenny has achieved his aim of becoming the first Fine Gael leader to serve two successive terms as Taoiseach and has become his party’s longest-serving person in that office, but he is still showing no signs of departing the stage any time soon. He is continually citing his experience in Europe as a reason to stay around for the start of the Brexit talks and who knows what other excuse he will find after that to stay another while longer.
Granted, we need stability at this crucial time, but there is a feeling – especially amongst a large cohort within his own party – that, until Enda Kenny steps down, the country cannot move on. In motoring parlance, it’s like we’re stuck in gear, especially given the government’s poor legislative performance to date.
From the general election on the last Friday in February 2016 to this time last year, it took more than two months to navigate the political stalemate that the result created and form a minority government, led by Fine Gael and with the support of the Independent Alliance, but ultimately propped up by the ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement with Fianna Fáil, in whose gift it is to bring down the government when it feels ready and it seems opportune to fight the next election. However, the stalemate looks set to continue for another while as neither of the two main parties – who continue to be neck and neck in the opinion polls – have the wherewithal or the finances to fight a general election in the immediate future.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has managed to rehabilitate the party in the wake of the toxic mess he inherited at the start of 2011 and has boxed clever, politically, but knows that they are still a considerable way off the glory days of the past when they seemed to rule the roost with impunity. He is happy to let Enda Kenny bluster on as Taoiseach, but when Fine Gael eventually changes its leader, the FF-FG dynamic will alter too.
Even though the vacancy hasn’t yet arisen, the Fine Gael leadership campaign between frontrunners Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney is well under way, with the former in the ascendancy at the moment on populist appeal. However, Simon Coveney is working hard to prove his worth, pushing his strategies to provide more housing and tackle homelessness, but these will take time and he can only hope that his bravery in taking on such a difficult brief will impress those who will be choosing the next party leader.
Solving the housing and health sector crises will take time and homelessness and hospital waiting times remain immediate and urgent concerns, so the ministers responsible are under constant pressure. Health Minister Simon Harris has been slow to get to grips with tackling the problems of the public health service, which is another black mark on the government report card.
Then, we have had the water charges controversy once again in recent weeks threatening to bring down the government and which saw Minister Simon Coveney shipping some more political flak, mostly within his own party, as the separate charges for normal water usage were consigned to the dustbin of history, with parties of all hues – some hypocritically – claiming credit for this populist victory. Our water services infrastructure still needs a huge amount of investment and this needs to be ring-fenced within the general taxation coffers.
The government has been dogged by scandals that keep coming back to haunt it, with Garda whistle-blower Sgt Maurice McCabe’s treatment reflecting badly on the force, compounded by recent revelations of almost 14,700 wrongful convictions for motoring offences and the massive overstating of breath testing carried out by Gardaí – all of which are being investigated by various inquiries and tribunals, but reflect badly on Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.
Industrial unrest has reared its head again with the recent three-week Bus Éireann strike inconveniencing the public and damaging retail businesses. There are many other unions contemplating action on pay and conditions, especially in the public sector, which directly involves the government.
The uncertainty over Brexit has to be the government’s biggest concern right now and, even though Taoiseach Enda Kenny seemed to make all the right noises when he visited the White House in mid-March, there has to be concern also about the Trump presidency and its implications for us. And, finally, at home, there’s the emotive proposal to repeal the 8th Amendment to be dealt with.