These past few weeks have been a surreal experience for the people of this country. At times it almost feels like the stuff of fiction with, at one stage, Taoiseach Leo Varadkaar’s return to medical duties drawing comparisons with President Whitmore in that 1996 blockbuster Independence Day.
There has been much praise for the solidarity and return of communitarian values. Some people have managed to draw positives from the whole experience and see the possibility of making some of the better changes permanent. Nevertheless, Insider regrets to say that when all of this is over we will also have cause to look back at much of this as a dark time in Irish history.
The onset of the Coronavirus left the Government with little option but to take drastic measures. While a small number of countries, most intriguing Sweden, have followed a different path, the reality is that an Irish Government, of any hue, is never likely to deviate from the consensus approach in the rest of the Western world on a matter such as this.
'Insider must pay tribute to the efforts of Galway West TD Catherine Connolly who has been head and shoulders the star performer in the few Dáil sittings that have been held since the onset of this crisis'
Overall, the Government is seen as having handled this crisis well up to now, stemming the flow of the virus, albeit there has been criticism that it has been allowed to get out of hand in nursing homes. The reputation of individual Ministers, some of whom had very low approval ratings until recently, and in some cases even lost their Dáil seats, has been boosted.
While virtually everybody accepts the daunting scale of the task facing the Government and civil servants, and very few people want to be seen to be overly critical, there are nevertheless some concerns. For instance, there has been criticism of the more draconian measures taken, with Taoiseach Varadkar admitting he was unhappy with some of them.
Clearly there is a trade-off, and at times such as these governments find they need to take decisions that ordinarily they would never dream of. It is important however that there is clear accountability when this happens. Turning parochial for a minute, Insider must pay tribute to the efforts of Galway West TD Catherine Connolly who has been head and shoulders the star performer in the few Dáil sittings that have been held since the onset of this crisis. Regardless of one’s ideological outlook, it has to be acknowledged that she has an understanding of, and ability to, execute her role in holding the executive to account that is well above that of most TDs. Her approach has been firm but measured.
'The virus and the scale of the economic and social challenges it throws up means the involvement of a third party and/or a substantial number of Independents is required'
Looking at the bigger picture however, there is clearly a leadership problem emerging with the Government being seen to defer to health experts and avoiding taking decisions themselves. The difficulty with this is that these experts can only advise and manage the health aspects. They cannot take the political decisions or weigh up the various other factors that need to be considered. As ever that falls to the politicians.
In this regard, a significant problem, and one the Government has alluded to privately from the off is that this is an administration that lost its mandate, and by extension its authority, is diminished. This leads Insider to one of the major reasons why this will go down as a dark period and it is the failure three months on from the General Election to form a government.
The efforts dedicated to fighting the impact of the virus has caused the process of government formation to stall but a month had already elapsed by the time the Taoiseach announced the first restrictions in his speech in Washington.
During that month, the parties went around in circles with FG sulking and playing games, while FF and SF held talks about talks with the smaller parties, something that wore the patience of even some of SF’s Northern members, who are well used to such interminable talks! It has always been obvious that at least two of the biggest three parties need to come together. The virus and the scale of the economic and social challenges it throws up means the involvement of a third party and/or a substantial number of Independents is required to give it the numbers to govern through a rocky period.
FF/FG – the road to the land of milk and honey?
The coming together of FF and FG may be historic and could have a lot of implications for the future direction of Irish politics, but for now, Insider will park those factors and instead focus on what it might mean in the immediate future for government formation.
Last week the two parties published a position paper. Insider accepts this was not a programme for government, but it read like an incoherent wish list leading to the land of milk and honey and, to top it all, no tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere to fund it. The document seemed deaf to the scale of the economic challenges thrown up by the pandemic – incidentally, Insider notes that the employees that have suffered most in the first wave of layoffs are immigrants, younger people and the lower paid but as the economic pain spreads we can expect the public to become far more agitated about this.
'The likelihood that a second election would throw up another inconclusive result might simply result in the process over the last three months being prolonged, and 2020 turning into a year of political paralysis'
Additionally, economic problems are likely to be exacerbated by a renewal of the tensions that we saw at EU level during the financial crisis in the early years of the last decade as well as a ramping up of the conflict between China and the West.
A more charitable interpretation would be that it was reminiscent of the framework document that FF under Albert Reynolds sent Labour in 1992 as a sign that it was amenable to incorporating that party’s policies in a programme for government. Last week’s document contained a blatant nod to some of the key policies of the constituent parts of the Triple Left Alliance of Labour, Greens, and Social Democrats, although when Insider read of the proposal for a unit to establish progress towards a ‘united island’ he wondered if SF might yet gatecrash the talks!
TLA – playing hard to get?
What chance of TLA involvement? Insider has never expected the Social Democrats to get involved in government, certainly not for the foreseeable future. Labour had a very poor election, making a net loss of one seat but also polling very poorly in some traditional heartlands including Galway West. On the face of it, and having elected a new leader the party would want to stay in Opposition, but, as in 2016 there is an argument that it stands a better chance of being relevant in government than on the crowded opposition benches.
The most interesting case is the Green Party. Insider appreciates the party was badly scalded by their previous experience of government and with a difficult few years ahead for the economy can understand its reluctance to get involved. On the other hand, will the Greens get a better chance to have an influence in government and put its key issues centre-stage?
'If another election were to be held in the coming months. One suspects the Greens are in danger of getting squeezed, in particular by FG with whom they compete for some of their middle class urban support'
While some commentators have tried to claim the party underperformed in February, Insider felt 12 seats was an excellent return. This despite only six per cent of people interviewed for the exit poll citing climate change as their biggest issue. While making predictions about election outcomes can be foolish, as we have seen in recent times, Insider suspects the party might struggle to do as well in a second election.
It is not just a case of anger with the party (and the rest of the TLA ) from some quarters at failing to get involved in government but also stems from the fact that the party tends to do better at times when the economy is strong. Only six per cent cited jobs as their big issue in that exit poll too, a position that would surely change dramatically if another election were to be held in the coming months. One suspects the Greens are in danger of getting squeezed, in particular by FG with whom they compete for some of their middle class urban support. This is a difficult decision for the party.
A second election?
Insider concluded a few weeks ago that we are more likely to be facing a second General Election. Ordinarily, politicians would bend over backwards and do everything in their power to avoid this scenario. In addition to having an understandable aversion to having to reapply for their jobs so quickly, there is also the sense that the political system must respect and work with the outcome the electorate throws up. Those feelings are still prevalent right now but, on this occasion Insider senses a number of factors outweighing them.
'The scale of what we face on the economic front is so significant it is only right the parties put their proposals clearly before the people'
First, the length of time that will have elapsed by the time a Government might finally be formed. Secondly, the unease among some elements of FF and FG about entering into a government together. Thirdly, the hesitation on the part of the TLA and maybe Independents to get involved. Finally, the biggest factor of all, the sense that things have changed dramatically since February.
Again, Insider comes back to the six per cent who referenced jobs as the big issue (with few other economic issues featuring at all ). So is it right that a Dáil that will be largely consumed with economic firefighting was elected with a very different mandate? Furthermore, the scale of what we face on the economic front is so significant that it is only right that the parties put their proposals clearly before the people, set out who they will or will not go into government with, and let the people give them a mandate to govern.
On the flip side, the likelihood that a second election would throw up another inconclusive result might simply result in the process over the last three months being prolonged, and 2020 turning into a year of political paralysis. In order to pass the type of emergency legislation that might be required again in the coming months, we need a functioning government and a properly constituted Dáil and Seanad. Hence, Insider may be proven wrong and, however reluctantly, a Government might yet be formed.