Coalition Honeymoon Well and Truly Over
Deaglán de Bréadún
It may be the longest political honeymoon in recent decades but, after 100 days, it is well and truly over. From now until the next Budget in December, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will be coming under increasingly severe scrutiny from media and public alike. As suggested in this piece on the mood in the Labour Party, which I wrote for the print edition of the paper recently, one of the Government’s problems may be that its majority is too big.
All happy families are the same; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Thus went the famous introduction to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina . But is the new Coalition a happy or unhappy family?
Are the minor partners in the Labour Party skulking discontentedly in the shadows or are they happy with their lot? It’s not an easy time for parties of the left, whether here, in Britain, or elsewhere. The very people they are pledged to protect are the ones from whom the right-wing parties seek the greatest sacrifices.
With 113 deputies, the Government has an overwhelming majority, but there are some who still recall Jack Lynch’s discomfort when Fianna Fáil came back with 84 out of what was then 148 Dáil seats. He was right: it turned out to be Lynch’s last election.
The Fine Gael-Labour administration of the mid-1980s broke up because the smaller party could not stomach proposed cuts in health, education and social welfare. The demand for cuts now is even more shrill, but how much is Labour prepared to swallow?
Prior to the election, questions were being raised about Kenny’s capacity for leadership, whereas Eamon Gilmore’s public image was an undoubted asset for Labour. Since the Government took office, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, with Kenny getting the kudos and Gilmore coming in for criticism, both open and covert.
The key objectives, on which the two parties are united, are to restore economic growth, increase employment and, as a Labour figure put it, “get the troika off our backs”.
But if there is broad agreement on the destination, there are different views on how to get there. This was seen most publicly in the row over the joint labour committees (JLC), the wage-setting mechanism in such sectors as hotels, catering and retail.
Fine Gael Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton came up with proposals for the abolition of the controversial premium payment for Sunday working. Statement after statement from backbenchers poured out of the Labour press office castigating Bruton’s proposal.
Labour sources are playing down suggestions that the whole thing was orchestrated from the top: it was rather a case of backbenchers competing with one another for publicity.
Nevertheless, it was an ominous development for the Coalition’s stability. “You can’t have a JLC situation every Thursday and Friday or we’ll be in a general election,” said a seasoned Labour activist.
It is likely Bruton’s proposals will be modified sufficiently and accompanied by other measures on, say, top-level pay in the public sector, to make them acceptable to the Labour Ministers.
Labour does accept, however, that, as one senior figure put it, “tough decisions have to be made”, but feels they need to be taken in a sensitive manner on issues such as this.
The economic management council set up between the two parties is meant to act as a trouble-shooting mechanism, but the system didn’t work in this instance. Devising an effective communications strategy for the Coalition is seen as vital.
The parliamentary Labour Party has set up a system of ministerial briefings for backbenchers “to avoid the possibility of conflict or the sense that Ministers are distant”, as one Labour TD put it.
Gilmore’s decision to take the foreign affairs brief is probably not helpful in dealing with this type of situation. The job necessarily involves a good deal of foreign travel and there is an EU presidency looming in two years’ time (the first memos are being circulated) that will keep him out of the country even more.
“He was always going to go for whatever Dick Spring had,” said a Labour source. Gilmore has a genuine interest in foreign affairs issues and there are undoubted attractions in holding what is generally seen as a “good news ministry”.
Labour is well-pleased with the impending restoration of the minimum wage to its former level, but an issue that jumped up and bit both of the parties was the imposition of a pension levy to fund the recent jobs initiative. That was a Fine Gael proposal in the first place – Labour was not very keen but went along with it. There are hopes that this particular controversy will go away.
“The pension levy will not be an issue if the economy recovers,” a top Labour source said.
Gilmore has had to contend with a few problems since he became Tánaiste. First there was the adverse reaction to his decision to pass over Joan Burton for the finance/public expenditure portfolio in favour of Brendan Howlin.
The subsequent bluntly worded feminist outcry may have influenced his decision to give all four of his Seanad nominations to women.
Gilmore’s statement in the course of the election, that it was either “Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way”, is coming back to haunt him, in light of the failure so far to secure an interest rate cut from Europe.
Another Labour figure said the difficulties so far were mainly the result of relatively inexperienced Fine Gael Ministers failing to communicate a clear message on water charges or the EU bailout.
No such confusion had been created by the Labour Ministers, reflecting their greater experience, but he warned: “The difficulty with confusion in any coalition government is that it can quickly translate into conflict unless it is properly managed.”