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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 23, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    Political Seismologists

    Harry McGee

    It is a surprise that international geophysical bodies have not alighted onto Leinster House yet to headhunt all the expert commentators who patrol the corridors.
    There’s not a crack or a rift or a divide or a faultline – no matter how hairline or infinitesimal – that has not been divined by us political correspondents.
    Already, just 18 months into the Coalition Government, we have discovered cleavages and potential earthquakes that Fine Gael or Labour are wholly unaware of… as yet.
    I was at the launch of the excellent www.dailwatch.ie a few weeks ago. Following criticism of politicians, the Fine Gael TD for Cork East David Stanton made an impassioned and impressive contribution from the floor in which he argued (and he was right) that political journalism is obsessed with personalities and process and conflict and that real issues and political decisions (which actually affect people’s lives) are often ignored.
    Stanton is chair of the Oireachtas justice committee. He said that a few of its recent reports, delving into important themes, had been completely ignored by the media and had got zero coverage.
    I agree with Stanton to a point. There is an obsession with personality, the ‘game’ of politics, and its process. But that is inevitable. There is a human dimension to politicians (getting elected after all requires strong personalities) and ego, power-struggles, conflict, polarities, polemic and exaggeration all play their part.
    It’s hard to know how real the latest ‘spat’ is between Eamon Gilmore and James Reilly. Despite Gilmore’s protestation that he does this with all major policy decisions, others within Government say it’s very unusual to go off and conduct independent research and information-gathering.
    It’s inevitable if one Minister is seeking independent verification, the question of ‘trust’ arises and despite the strenuous denials last night, it’s becoming much harder for the Government to convince people that its show of unity is 100 per cent real any more. There is a big issue between Reilly and Labour. It also shows that some major calls of the Government seem to becoming less collegial, less consensus-driven and far more political – with each side dividing along party lines.
    It’s relatively early in the Government’s term and much too early for any talk of deal-breakers. But already, it’s becoming clear that notwithstanding its overwhelming majority, notwithstanding the fact that they are the two biggest parties, this Government will struggle to last its full term.
    Of course, so much depends on where the economy goes over the next 18 months, and how the Government tackles the overhang of debt from bank recapitalisation. At this juncture, it looks like it will be this time next year before the ESM is fully functioning. On that basis, the Government will need another temporary reprieve when the next €3 billion tranche of the promissory note falls due for payment in March 2013.
    How difficult will it be to frame the Budget and its €3.5 billion in adjustments? Very difficult and it will mean both Government parties taking big hits as they cede core manifesto issues. If growth remains static or tiny next year, if the eurozone continues to struggle, if unemployment figures remain stubbornly high and if the Government fails to hit the projection targets, it will be a nightmare. But then, so much is based on confidence, among politicians, in the markets, among consumers and taxpayers. A series of small wins could be the catalyst for solid recovery.
    So when will the tipping point happen for this Government and we political seismologists will have our predictions borne out. If in 18 months time, the economy is sluggish and struggling and the Government parties, particularly Labour, are tanking in the polls, then it will mean curtains. Maybe not immediately but curtains nonetheless. The local and European elections in 2014 will also be a trigger event, pushing up the numbers on the Richter Scale.
    And in between we will have loads of ‘events’ – big and small – that will impel us political seismologists to identify new rifts and faultlines.
    In a way, that is a safe and predictable prediction to make but it is also, in my view, realistic.

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