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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 18, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    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.”

    • Peter Barrins says:

      There would seem to be a lack of coherence and there have been a number of communication related gaffes. In relation to the cuts Howlin and Burton are the two Ministers with the most contorversial portfolios and they are Labour. The one reservation I have always had regarding Labour has been their inherent links to the (often destructive) trade unions.

      I cannot fathom how last week the Government could firmly commit to no income tax increases or social welfare cuts given the savings that must be achieved. However, not cutting these areas is keeping money in circulation and this has never been more necessary. Standing in a shopping centre in Maynooth yesterday, I was struck by the number of retail outlets that are now vacant and have been so for months. I’m certain this is replicated across the country and is the direct result of removing basic income from people’s pockets.

      I suspect (and hope) Noonan knows what he’s doing and is playing a longer strategic game rather than one aimed at immediate political popularity. I also think that Kenny is much more shrewd than he appears to be.

    • Elv says:

      After a relatively sweet honey/moon period (and they did drip-feed us honey) during which celebratory period this new coalition managed to stay just partially eclipsed by “the shadow of Debt”; now this Coalition is moving into the inevitable next lunar phase – total eclipse by “the shadow of Dept” and, as we are already beginning to see signs of, the beleaguered citizens will turn nastier and nastier as beleaguered citizens are wont to do and they will vent their rage and their frustrations on the ruling authority……..déjà vu mes amis. At any rate, at this point in our history – the country being so mired in debt agus mar sin – it would be much more prudent and economical for all concerned that Áras an Uachtaráin be converted into a Headquarters for the Troika and only the bare bones of a skeleton government be kept in Leinster House to carry out the instructions of the Troika. As I posted elsewhere, Ajai Chopra certainly has a “presidential” demeanour. Ajai for the Áras, I say. Anyway, it will probably take at least seven years (the length of a presidential term) for the country to even approach economic sovereignty or solvency again. The list of candidates (for the office of president) that we have been presented with so far, to my mind, at any rate, offers a Hobson’s choice. The two which stand out most being, on the one hand, the benign figure of a timid, dithering, absent-minded, affable philosopher (not David Norris) and on the other hand, the figure of an effusive, over-confident, gaffe-prone controversialist (not Michael D Higgins). It’s just not good enough and anyway, the country cannot afford to subsidise the figaries of such colourful characters and especially not a coalition of the size of the one we’ve got at the moment. Lunatic. Honeymoon my…foot.

    • xx says:

      If ever a pair had the look of a pair of chancers that could play the parts of Laurel & Hardy it is the Taoiseach and his Minister for finance. Stan Kenny and Ollie Noonan. Please Mr Noonan stop trying to give the impression that you and Christine Lagarde are best buddies. Off camera we know you are on your knees licking her Christian Louboutins

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