You can never find those darn democratic revolutions when you need them
On the first few page of the Programme for Govenrment there is a long self-congratulatory preamble which includes the extraordinary claim that what happened in the election was a democratic revolution.
That little phrase has stuck in my mind for months, possibly because it is meaningless. It’s like candyfloss. It looks exciting. It looks substantial. It looks inviting. And then when you bite into it you realise there’s no substance, it’s nothing.
Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore have said on numerous occasions that with the new Government it’s not going to be politics as usual. And it hasn’t. There have been some welcome changes, reductions in salaries of the particualry obese cats; a referendum on judicial pay; a referendum on Abbeylara; some strong stuff on the Church’s tardiness on abuse inquiries (Kenny caught the public mood perfectly and that allowed him get away with cavalier assertions); and very modest parliamentary reform.
I was really surprised to hear Gilmore reduce his ‘Labour’s way or Frankfort’s way’ phrase to the junk status of ‘churchgate’ statement last week. That’s the second time in recent months that Gilmore’s public utterances have been a mismatch with his real sentiments. There was the embarrassing Wikileaks disclosure on Gilmore’s true sentiments on the use of Shannon by US troops. For me, the palaver about Gilmore’s alleged silence and inffectiveness was a distraaction and a hype-fest. The real issue about Gilmore, for me, boils down to credibility. If he’s admitting that he was saying things in public just for effect, can we believe a word that comes out of his mouth?
It’s the same with any new Government, and not just in Ireland. We are settled democracies. Any political party elected into office may tinker around with the system and the establishment but they’re not going to dismantle it. That’s even truer for Ireland where one centrist combination always takes over from another. There wasn’t a lurch to the left in the General Election. Indeed if you accept the near-reality that the Labour Party is no longer a party of the left (but a corporist party whose main base is the public service), the shift was ever so slightly right. The new Fine Gael and Labour Coalition wasn’t travellikng on a train into Moscow in 1917. Sure, there will be change. But all the poetry of the election campaign will be reduced to slovenly and functional prose as the Government ‘manages’ rather than ‘changes’. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily bad either. But it’s not a revolution or a step-change. Rather it’s continuity with a few tweaks. Under new management. The prime example of that is Obama’s presidency in the US. So much expectation. So many disappointments.
And so the new Dail term will give us an extra half hour on Tuesdays and some sitting hours on Friday. Bills won’t be discussed on Friday which will make the Dail chamber a pretty desolate field on Friday as everybody who isn’t speaking will have gone home. Oh yes, there will be leaders’ questions on Thursday but they will be taken by the Tanaiste although the Taoiseach will take them when available. The term ‘when available’ will mean about once every term. The one good thing to come out is the topical debate slots, which are starting as I write (at 3.30pm). They may allow more meaningful engagment by ordinary TDs on the really pressing and urgent issues of the day (for example, Ciara Conway of Labour just passed me by in the canteen and said she will be talking about the closure of Talk Talk in the chamber in a few minutes).
An assumption that’s curent at the moment is that the Government’s honeymoon will last until the Budget. The thinking is that it will be the first opportunity they will have to truly push through their own major policy agendas.
I’m not really buying it. I think the Budget will be so well flagged in advance that it will contain few nasty surprises or shocks. The country is still numbed by the loss of sovereignty, people still feel that it’s others, not our Government, who are really running the country. I suspect Fine Gael and Labour will stay relatively free of criticism until the Spring of next year.
The oppostion is fragmented. Fianna Fail is an opposition party with no desire or credibility to oppose anything yet. Sinn Fein and the ULA are both opposing everything, adopting a populist line without putting up any alternative that makes sense or adds up. Sinn Fein’s main currency is anger. Its maths certainly don’t add up. It needs to get real.
There hasn’t been a democratic revolution. And this Government, like all administrations, will disappoint by its failures to live up to its rhetoric. But the strange thing is, we are in a kind of suspended reality right now that will leave them unscated until they have been a year or more in office.