Coalition's focus must remain on the economy
OPINION: Finding ways of cutting public spending and raising revenue from new taxes is where Ministers need to focus
THE COALITION has got itself into a tangle on a number of fronts in recent weeks, and the frustrating thing for Ministers is that this has distracted attention from the fact that on the really big issues they have done pretty well.
Getting the bank debt issue reopened at the recent Brussels summit was an important breakthrough for Taoiseach Enda Kenny, while the seventh visit of the troika during the week confirmed that the country remains on track to meet its programme targets.
Getting the referendum on the fiscal treaty endorsed by the public at the end of May was a major achievement in difficult circumstances. The country’s future depended on it, and the Government, with a little help from Fianna Fáil, rose to the challenge with a strong, coherent and convincing campaign.
Instead of basking in its success on the economic and European Union fronts, the Coalition has got itself bogged down in the final weeks of the Dáil session in public disputes between Ministers over the Croke Park agreement and wrangles over which Oireachtas committee should be given responsibility for conducting a banking inquiry.
A lot of time has also been devoted to the setting up of a constitutional convention whose initial remit is decidedly underwhelming. Whether or not the voting age should be reduced to 17 or the President’s term from seven years to five are hardly weighty matters in the great scheme of things.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s public commitment to gay marriage, which is another item on the convention’s agenda, has generated some tension between Labour and Fine Gael, and put the Taoiseach under pressure on an issue where he clearly has different views from his partners in Government.
With a children’s referendum planned for the autumn, and one to abolish the Seanad for the middle of next year, there is a real danger that the Coalition could get bogged down in campaigning, never mind a fractious inter-party dispute over issues such as gay marriage.
Ministers should beware the parallels with the 1980s when a Fine Gael-Labour coalition tied itself in knots over a referendum on abortion while crucial decisions on the economy were put on the long finger.
At the beginning of this Government’s term of office last year, Kenny rightly identified the restoration of economic sovereignty as the central challenge facing his administration. Everything else pales into insignificance in the face of that overwhelming task.
The danger about things like the constitutional convention is that change is never as simple as the advocates of any particular cause think, and the time and effort involved in trying to steer a referendum through is a huge distraction from the everyday work of government.
Look at how the referendum to give Oireachtas committees more investigative powers was lost last October. On the face of it the measure should have commanded massive public support, but the opposition of the legal lobby and concerns about how politicians could abuse their power led to its defeat.