Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Current Political Situation

Whatever else is to befall the unhappy nation on this pivotal day in Irish politics, it has to be hoped that An Taoiseach has kept his receipt for the five million or so Euro he spent on a Strategic Communications Unit. If they hadn’t ballsed-up the Thursday messaging, the government would not be on the edge of a precipice today.

The minutiae of who read what email when doesn’t matter in terms of the government's survival. Fianna Fáil have been watching the government, and the government watching Fianna Fáil, since the budget. Both know the end of the confidence-and-supply agreement is close; neither wants to be left being reactive to the other when the thing goes wallop and it’s time to face the people.

The latest McCabe revelations resulted in Sinn Féin tabling a motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste on Thursday of last week. This left Fianna Fáil in a dilemma; if they went against the Sinn Féin motion and something else broke about the state’s disgraceful treatment of Sergeant McCabe, Fianna Fáil lose ground to Sinn Féin.

Fianna Fáil cannot lose (further) ground to Sinn Féin because Sinn Féin will get a boost from a new face on the posters and from the fact that Sinn Féin represents the greatest potential change in the election anyway. Every electorate dreams of the far-away fields.

Therefore, Fianna Fáil had no option but to declare their own motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste. They missed a trick badly in not pulling the plug during the final days of Enda Kenny, when the disgraceful story about the breathalyser-fixing by the Gardaí broke. That would have been perfect, because the issue was so clear-cut and easily understandable. Fianna Fáil could not lose another opportunity.

In the light of this, the sensible play on Fine Gael’s part would have been to either keep schtum or else jettison Frances Fitzgerald with the greatest dispatch. You may say this would have been grossly unfair on Mrs Fitzgerald; reader, what’s fair got to do with it? This is politics, the dirtiest game there is.

Alan Shatter lost his job on the basis of political expediency. The noted moralists of the Labour Party defenestrated the Taoiseach that brokered the first ceasefire in Northern Ireland in a fit of political pique. Charlie Haughey, to echo Jeremy Thorpe’s famous quip about Harold MacMillan’s night of the long knives, laid down his friend for his life in 1990. That’s politics.

However. Fine Gael did not take this sensible option. Instead, Fine Gael went on the offensive, with Eoghan Murphy, a man without whom Leo Varadkar would not now be Taoiseach, delivered a studs-up performance in defence of Frances Fitzgerald’s honour on Prime Time last Thursday that bet the farm on Fianna Fáil backing down.

This was an extraordinarily naïve decision. All politicians like wriggle room, but Irish politicians need it most of all. Fine Gael’s public doubling-down on the Tánaiste means that any concession to Fianna Fáil looks like a climbdown. Sinn Féin had already closed off Fianna Fáil on one flank; Fine Gael’s outrage that anybody should look crossways at their Tánaiste left Fianna Fáil with no option but to light the fuse.

As Sarah Bardon of the Irish Times pointed out yesterday on Twitter, the messaging from the government has softened considerably since Thursday:

And that’s all fine, but Fianna Fáil remain in a Grand-Old-Duke-of-York dilemma. All these things have to be understood in the context of the general election that will be fought early next year, if not before Christmas. How will Fianna Fáil’s argument of being responsible and putting the nation first stack up against Sinn Féin’s constant attack of Fianna Fáil being part of an elite that is willing to stoop to anything to keep itself in power, instead of doing the right thing in the name of that good man who was wronged, Maurice McCabe?

Politics is broad strokes. How do subtleties about changes to the Department of Justice work as broad strokes? Badly, is the answer. For Fianna Fáil, anything less than the Tánaiste’s head is a Sinn Féin win. In the light of this, Fine Gael’s only chance of limiting the damage would be for Frances Fitzgerald to do a Sidney Danton before marching bravely to the guillotine, and hope to be avenged in the election after Christmas. A cobbled-together compromise means an early Christmas for Sinn Féin HQ as their long march to power comes three to five seats nearer.