Friday, April 18, 2014

Hello Again, Square One

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The Houses of the Oireachtas rise on Thursday for the Easter break, and do not return (descend? Hardly an inappropriate verb) until May 6th. Siesta time in days gone by, whatever the whining from the members, but not this year. This year there are two elections coming to the boil over the holidays, and every party expects boots on the ground to get the vote out.

The sovereign nation was told that things would never be the same again as the votes of the last election were being counted, the election that routed Fianna Fáil and saw the current Government sweep to power on a five-point-plan ticket. Things, we were told, would never be the same again.

Well. That didn’t work out, did it? A recent opinion poll in the Irish Times saw Fianna Fáil neck-and-neck with Fine Gael, the Government parties using their huge majority to protect the Minister for Justice at the cost of a massive amount of public goodwill. The Government had a mountain of public goodwill when elected. It’s safe to say the needle is now as near to zero as makes no difference.

Enda Kenny, had he so chosen, could have created a Second Republic three years ago by claiming a single-party mandate and daring Fianna Fáil to support him as he carried out Fianna Fáil’s own Troika-dictated blueprint for recovery. The moment Fianna Fáil’s support quivered, Enda could damn them as traitors to the recovery, run to the country and achieve not only the first-ever Fine Gael overall majority, but the end of Fianna Fáil for good and for always.

Enda Kenny choose the more stable option in coalescing with Labour, but now, bizarre though it sounds, the country is too stable. The Crash seemed like a wake-up call at the time, a painful lesson that the state has been run badly and could never be run the same way again.

But nothing has changed. Yes, the bailout is over and the sky didn’t fall in, but what has changed as regards the fundamental structures of the state? The recent controversies would suggest: nothing. Nothing at all has changed, or will ever change.

And as such, the pendulum swings back to its default position and Fianna Fáil, having being laid out on its back by the General Election, could be standing on its own two feet again come the summer, and chomping at the bit for the next general election.

Irish politics has been on a twenty-year cycle since the Second World War. Fianna Fáil governs for sixteen years, the country tires of them and gives the other crowd a go.

Even though it’s been sixteen long years since the other crowd were in charge, they’ve managed to use that time to learn nothing about how to last for longer than one term when they get back. It is genuinely extraordinary.

Last week a British junior minister had to resign because a claim of £45,000 in expenses to which she was not entitled.

In Ireland the Minister for Justice is at the centre of controversies that include using Garda information as a political smear, phone-tapping (official), phone-tapping (unofficial), not reading letters that are his duty to read and the Lord knows what else. One of those alone should have cost his job. Not one of them did, nor ever looked likely to, either.

Where will this all lead? In a game where a week is a famously long time, it’s a risk to project into years. But we’re all friends here so let’s take a shot.

The mystery about who gets elected from our current European super-constituencies exists in inverse proportion to how very little it matters. We could send the Shamrock Rovers first XI for all the difference it’d make. Toothless tigers. Pointless.

What is more interesting are the local elections, and how badly the Government parties fare. Fine Gael and Labour celebrated the exit of the Troika, but they haven’t had a moment’s luck since. And if the local elections are a disaster for the Government parties, could we be looking at a double-heave?

Joan Burton has made noises recently about the need for Eamon Gilmore to have a Ministry based in Ireland, but it’s more likely she’s doing that to twist his tail rather than launch her own bid. Gilmore will go down with his ship. Anyone who took over now would take the blame for the likely massacre at the next general election, and who wants that?

As for Fine Gael, Enda Kenny’s stubborn loyalty to Alan Shatter has depleted his goodwill reserves within the party. The sensible thing to do was to either pension Shatter off or else simply fire him. The longer the thing went on, the more it cost Kenny.

And Kenny’s enemies have never gone away. The question for conspirators now is whether or not to launch their heave before or after Phil Hogan is made European Commissioner, as seems to be the general expectation in the corridors of power. Hogan is Kenny’s chief lieutenant – Kenny will be more vulnerable without Hogan to keep the troops in line. However, if Kenny is sufficiently vulnerable after the local elections, the rebels may decide to treat themselves, on the basis that two heads are better than one.

Independents will be the big winners in the locals, but the big winners in terms of the next general election will be Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, of course. The commentariat insist that the Sinn Féin rise is due to Mary Lou McDonald’s undeniably impressive performances on TV. The opinion polls say that Gerry Adams has the highest leader-satisfaction in the country. So it’s not easy reconcile those opposites.

The real turning point of the next election, then, will be whether Fianna Fáil are the majority or minority party in coalition, and how broad will that coalition have to be. We are too far out to tell, but it’s hard to see the Government turning their fortunes around short of a heave, and the Reform Alliance have missed the most open goal since the foundation of the state. Hello again, Square One. This is Ireland. We’re back.