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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 4, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    Audacity of opposition versus timidity of Government

    Harry McGee

    Arianna Huffington in her eponymous blog  poses a great question in her headline on Obama’s first year in office (see the blog posting here).

    “Obama One Year  Later,” it reads. “The Audacity of Winning vs. The Timidity of Governing”.

    The headline neatly illustrates the Great Compromise that is the lot of any political administration. You promise revolution and if you are very lucky you deliver evolution.

    The words shouted out during election campaigns in capital letters – change, hope, reform, transformation – become smaller whispered words when the realities of day-to-day governing are driven home.

    Hopes of effecting change – irresistible during the campaign – becomes very much resistible in Government. The civil servants are naturally cautious. Even the most ebullient of politicians find that caution rubbing off on them. They are wary too that the media can be reactionary to change (and that denotes a caution and unthinking conservatism on its part). And it’s surprising how resistant to change are the citizens themselves, the very ones that voted you in with a strong mandate for change.

    It’s a quandary. But governing by consensus often means a fudge and taking a decision that is the lowest common denominator. You find that the idealist who promised radical surgery producing a sticking plaster instead.

    The Irish political class was never in thrall to the sophisticated (but empty)  strategy of governing by opinion poll or focus group – or of using the very cynical strategy of triangulation when drawing up your policies – beloved of both the Blair and Clinton adminstrations.

    However, because Fianna Fail has been in power for a long time, its policies and thinking have tended to be conservative (in manner, not politics). So over time Big Ideas become Little Ideas. Change becomes More of the Same but with a little twist.

    The smoking ban was the only major idea of the past decade. McCreevy came up with a couple of innovative tax ideas at the beginning of Fianna Fail’s run. Low corporation tax has been a success on the whole. But the other raft of low taxes have contributed to the mess we are in. Maybe that’s an argument for those who believe that with settled democracies the best thing is not to rock the boat too violently or else everything will be torpedoes.

    The big question is this: Is Nama a revolutionary idea? Or is it merely the only device that can be utilised to prevent Irish banks from being nationalised (something that the Government opposes on ideological grounds)?

    It’s a Big Idea in this respect. If it goes wrong, it will bankrupt the country. But is it the Government thinking brave and big and seeing around corners? Or is it something else, the only option because there was no other alternative other than nationalising th banks?

    And while I’m at it, Fine Gael has come up with a couple of big ideas, not least of which is Seanad and Dáil reform. If Enda Kenny gets his feet under the Taoiseach’s desk, will they come into being.

    Or will he use the Miwadi strategy? Dilute very thoroughly before tasting.

    • robespierre says:

      You have some reforming minds in FG like Varadkar so while he represents one voice it is a strong, articulate and powerful one within the party.

      Richard Bruton has also proven himself to be a rock of common sense since 2002 and has been vindicated in nearly every stand he has taken since then.

      On the question of ideology we are locked into a system of global trade so the extent to which one can truly reform economically is moot.

      Socially there is plenty of room for reform – we have a very conservative justice (and equality) minister at the moment with a dodgy past as regards his comments on same sex relationships.

      There are a few things I would like to see happen. Radical reform of local government and empowerment of local authorties to raise charges and taxes to pay for local services. The euro constituency model would be far more efficient and would allow for a lot of merging of duplicate adminstrative functions. Lay offs would be required.

      Central government could then move to a list system in a unicameral parliament where we start voting on national platform policies. This should enable more focus on policy and legislation and less on pot hole fixing which will move down the list anyway as there will be fewer councils to be elected onto.

      Political reform has to come first. Social reform will follow. Economic reform on the private sector will largely come about from the private sector (ex banking). Economic reform of the public sector won’t come from Labour or Fianna Fáil in a PR-STV system.

    • Andrew says:

      You wouldn’t credit the Greens will introducing some much needed change? We’re now fourth in the world in terms of wind energy and 30,000 people have applied for the home energy schemes. The carbon levy and directly elected Mayor of Dublin will all be big changes introduced in the coming months. And then there is the planning bill!

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Harry, as you note part of this is that we don’t change the political system at election time. We merely change some of the participants. The civil service, the party of real permanent government, are returned to office after every election and they will attempt to stymie real radical change. In particular in Ireland we are bound by the fact that no non-FF lead government has been returned to power at successive elections since 1927. This means many civil servants can take the view that they merely need to wait out the new government and wait for their more compliant partners in FF to be returned. The next election and the one after that might offer a chance to alter than mindset.

      It has always astounded me the amount of ink consumed in articles by those advocates who would prefer a left right divide in Irish politics who have suggested it is the removal of Fine Gael from the scene that would lead to this coming about when in truth it is the existence of FF as a catch all grab bag party. Where FF to be forced into opposition for two substantive Dáil terms then such a re-alignment might well come about.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      I would add Labour’s big idea of universal health insurance and a single tier health system, subsequently copied in part by FG and the Greens.

      Or Labour’s big idea of one year free pre school education subsequently copied by the Government and due to be implemented.

      In fact there are many big ideas in politics. But not all of them are headline grabbing and some are right wing and some are left wing.

      As for big ideas in bad times – it was in the immediate aftermath of the second world war that the NHS was established in Britain and it is now Obama is proposing Universal Health Cover in America, and he is making progress in that regard.

    • Eoin says:

      “The smoking ban was the only major idea of the past decade. ” I would have to disagree. This is downplaying the ways in which government operates here. The privatisation of public healthcare? The encouragement through taxation of unsustainable housing development? The slow dismantling of the state’s own equality framework? All of these too are ‘ideas’ that are chosen as policy options that affect people in very real ways.

    • Ray D says:

      Any chance the Opposition parties – any of them – would get off their asses and produce a series of thoughtful and radical position papers for policy development on a range of socio-economic subjects so that we might know in a coherent fashion what the Parties stand for. The benefits in electoral terms would flow. We are sick to the teeth of lazy politics which got us where we are (including lazy greedy politicians, lazy greedy unions, lazy greedy industrialists etc) and Mickey Mouse parties such as the PDs and the Greens holding power without mandate, etc.

      I offer to produce many such papers on a wide variety of issues for a small fee.

    • Keith says:

      “Low corporation tax has been a success on the whole”

      That was a Labour/FG initiative, not an FF one. Ruairi Quinn was the one who sought and got permission from the European Commission. Unfortunately John Bruton’s ridiculous decision to hold a General Election six months early.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      A big idea (and one long overdue) is a referendum to subordinate private property rights to the collective interests of the people.

      Archbishop John Charles McQuaid ensured that the scourge of communism was constitutionally outlawed in Ireland by inserting the private property primacy principal into the 1932 constitution. Like all bigots he over-compensated resulting in a distortion which has infected our public life ever since.

      Our excessive private property protections are at the root of our continuing failure to build a cohesive, sovereign state which protects its citizens first and the wealth of foreigners (and virtual foreigners) second. It is the fig leaf that institutions that have repeatedly failed the population have hid behind. Without it NAMA could not exist.

      No Irish political party represented in the Dáil currently advocates changing it, showing how narrow is the spectrum of political opinion in this country.

    • dealga says:

      I see Ms Huffington is still posting anti-MMR nonsense on her blog…

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      We would need to know who you are to take you up on that offer. You could also consider joining a political party. In some of the parties, though not all (particularly when you have “Leader’s initiatives”) members play an important role in the formation of policy.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Joanna, don’t get me started on “Leader’s initiatives”. For the record members can play a role in the formation of policy in Fine Gael, it’s just that it’s kind of a dark art and some of us are still trying to master it.

      Betterworld now, I suspect you mean the 1937 constitution and I’m almost sure that the notion that the likes of the Kenny report from 1973 with regard to land values would be unconstitutional has never been actually tested. We have an odd reserve in Ireland (one would think we had a feat of the judiciary) when it comes to introducing legislation for fear that it might be found to be unconstitutional. The constitution is viewed a bit like the barriers on the motorway, sure it’s there to protect us but it’s not going to break if we bump up against it.

    • robespierre says:

      Nice barb Joanna – well merited too.

      However, can we read from your post that Eamonn Gilmore looks to his party for initiative and that he himself neither has the imprimatur to lead or dread of dread the ideas???? :-)

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      That is a good barb too!


      It would help if you were a spin doctor to the Leader as regards the dark art you refer to.

      To be fair spin is a phenomenon that has a huge role in politics generally, as far as I can make out, to the detriment of the art of conviction politics and the notion that rather than change your policies to suit the voters you should go out and do your utmost to persuade the voters that your policies are in their best interest. And then if you are sucessful in that regard and get into government you implement those big ideas you stand for.

    • Ray D says:

      There was no need to test the Kenny Report. It is clear, as the minority report stated, that the recommendation of the main report would not withstand a constitutional challenge. That is why no Gov has attempted to implement the core of Kenny.

      For somewhat similar reasons the Greens’ lunatic 80% tax will never happen.

      We need to amend the Constitution but any such amendment would undoubtedly fail imo.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Ray D,

      I was on the All Party Constitution Committee when it published its report on Property Rights in 2004 and our report took the view (with advice from a constitutional lawyer) that there was no constitutional impediment to implementing the Kenny report.

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