ENOUGH time has been wasted in the formation of a government, primarily due to the main parties seeking to look after their own political interests ahead of the country’s needs. The time has now come to prioritise all the urgent issues affecting the people of Ireland that have been put on the back burner for more than the three months that have elapsed since the last government dissolved the Dáil.
On the occasions that the 32nd Dáil has met since the general election, there were lots of statements on the issues of concern, but nothing in the way of decisions that would lead to decisive action to tackle the numerous problems that face the incoming government. Any decisions made were agreed behind closed doors during the negotiations on the formation of the government and the Dáil’s role will be reduced to rubberstamping them afterwards – hardly the new way of doing politics that we are continually being promised but have yet to see happening.
The election of Enda Kenny as the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to serve two consecutive terms of office might be historic, but it is a hollow victory for him after, effectively, losing an election that was there for them to win when he and his strategists failed to read the mood of the people properly. They paid a big political price by only being able to form a minority government with great difficulty, the survival of which is dependent on the support of independents and underpinned by a humbling deal with Fianna Fáil to tacitly back it for three budgets and to abstain in confidence votes.
Already, the knives are out for Enda Kenny within his own party as there is growing anger that he did not face down Fianna Fáil strongly enough in relation to their populist stance on water charges, but Fine Gael had to be pragmatic in the end because they were in a no-win situation. The suspension of water charges for nine months and the setting up of a commission to examine how people should pay for water in the future and report back to the Dáil with recommendations for consideration has kicked the can down the road for another few months and it may provide wriggle room for parties to reconsider their positions on the issue without necessarily losing face.
While the deal on the formation of the government does not include the abolition of Irish Water, there are fears of job losses amongst its employees and contractors, especially on the billing side, which has become redundant for the time being – and possibly indefinitely. If water charges are ultimately abolished, those who dutifully obeyed the law and paid them will have to be either refunded or credited against any future payment regime, be it taxation or otherwise.
The ultimate political price of the whole mess surrounding Irish Water and water charges will be probably be paid by the Taoiseach who presided over it, Enda Kenny, having to step down relatively early in his second term of office to facilitate a new party leader as there is palpable dissatisfaction within Fine Gael about his leadership, the general election result and the compromises that have had to be made to form a government. Young guns such as Leo Varadkar are not being coy about their leadership ambitions and he, in particular, has articulated quite clearly the fighting talk – albeit as shameless rhetoric – that the party grassroots want to hear, so he may well be the outgoing Taoiseach if this Dáil term runs its agreed three-year course or more, although Simon Coveney might also be in the running, having resisted any temptation to go grandstanding during the negotiations.
Fianna Fáil, under Micheál Martin, has knocked the maximum political advantage it could out of the government formation negotiations, propping up the Fine Gael-led minority administration by way of abstention, but not letting arch-rivals Sinn Féin have the full run of the opposition side of the house either. Ultimately, when the plug is pulled on this government, it will most likely be done by Fianna Fáil.
One issue that could yet come back to haunt them, however, is that of water charges and their election promise to abolish Irish Water. In the meantime, it is incumbent on all the parties and the independents who have enabled the formation on the new government to get to work immediately on measures to alleviate the public healthcare and homelessness crises in the short term and to plan sustainable long-term solutions also.
The agreement on government formation provides welcome funding for tackling hospital treatment waiting lists, subsidising childcare costs, increasing rent supplement and extending mortgage interest tax relief. The banks are to be taken to task about their excessive variable mortgage interest rates here and the mortgage arrears crisis is to be meaningfully addressed.
A review is to be undertaken of the location of Garda stations and the effects that closures of them have had on the communities they served. A renewed focus on rural development is promised, but must come in the form of a tangible plan on the lines of the last government’s successful Action Plan for Jobs.
Then, there’s the ‘Brexit’ referendum next month on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. To make up for lost time, our new government really must hit the ground running.