Coalition needs to seize the initiative

Opinion: Alan Shatter’s mistake was to get sucked into a bitter conflict between Martin Callinan and the whistleblowers

‘Alan Shatter’s ministerial career ended as a result of a catalogue of incidents involving whistleblowers that happened during Fianna Fáil’s term of office long before he became Minister for Justice.  Photograph: Eric Luke

‘Alan Shatter’s ministerial career ended as a result of a catalogue of incidents involving whistleblowers that happened during Fianna Fáil’s term of office long before he became Minister for Justice. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sat, May 10, 2014, 00:01

The standing of a government with the public is a fickle thing that is often more a matter of perception than reality, but once its reputation sinks below a certain point it is almost impossible to recover.

The Coalition is now at a critical point, after a dramatic week in which it lost its first minister in action. If it fails to recover the initiative quickly, its prospects are bleak. The fate of the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition led by Brian Cowen should be a salutary lesson. That much reviled government actually achieved a great deal against appalling odds and managed to save the economy from spinning into the abyss. It was eventually put to the sword by an outraged electorate who held it responsible for the excesses of the Ahern years.

Its reputation remains in tatters and is still a millstone around the neck of Fianna Fáil in its attempts to rebuild. Fianna Fáil deserved to pay a price for presiding over the excesses of the Celtic Tiger but what made that price even higher than it need have been was the way in which it descended into farce in its final days.


Adversity
Nonetheless, it is important that its achievements in the face of adversity are not forgotten so that all the lessons of the crash are fully learned. In a recent assessment of Ireland’s economic crisis and recovery, respected economist John Fitzgerald of the Economic and Social Research Institute, has some interesting observations to make on the performance of the last and current governments.

He points out the adjustment plan of November 2010, which underpinned the bailout, was actually devised by the Irish government rather than the troika. A crucial aspect of the plan was that the government set achievable targets and under-promised in terms of results.

“This policy stance by an outgoing government was unusual as they were facing into an election within three months. (It is more usual for governments to over-promise in a run-up to an election.) However, in this case the outgoing government anticipated a disastrous election result and, instead of over-promising, facilitated the incoming government by putting in place an achievable set of fiscal targets.”

That approach was politically suicidal for the last government but good for the country and for the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition that succeeded it. Despite all the rhetoric of the previous years, the Coalition adopted the broad outlines of the plan and implemented it until troika supervision ended last December. It is ironic the Coalition got so much public credit for the manner in which it implemented the plan devised by its predecessor, while continuing to denounce Fianna Fáil for coming up with the plan in the first place.

Fitzgerald points out that what happened here was in stark contrast to what happened in Spain, where the government in place when the crisis struck devised a plan with unachievable targets, which then fell to its successor to implement. When the targets proved unachievable the current Spanish government had to take it in the neck. It is unlikely members of the Cowen government are going to get much recognition any time soon for its positive achievements, as the focus will remain on the responsibility most of them share for the policies that led to the crash.

The fate of Alan Shatter is another example of the perverse way politics can work. His ministerial career ended as a result of a catalogue of incidents involving whistleblowers that happened during Fianna Fáil’s term of office.

Shatter’s mistake was to get sucked into a bitter conflict between former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan and the whistleblowers over the way their claims were investigated. Some months ago a senior Fine Gael colleague, observing the controversy unfold, observed that the combination of intelligence and combativeness that prompted Shatter to try to win every argument (he usually succeeded) was also his Achilles’ heel.

“These rows have nothing to do with him; they all happened under Fianna Fáil so he should keep his mouth shut, not be getting involved. He is only damaging himself and the Government,” said the colleague. Those words proved prophetic.

Shatter paid the ultimate political price for his failure to treat Sgt Maurice McCabe’s complaints with the seriousness they deserved; but those complaints related to crimes that happened before his watch. The question is whether the Coalition can recover from the bruising of the past five months that ended in Shatter’s departure.

The outcome of the local and European elections will provide a clue as to its prospects, but if the wrangling over the water charges is a sign of things to come when serious budget talks begin in late summer, the omens are not good.


Simmering issue
Another simmering issue is the distrust many members of the Cabinet feel about Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, who is blamed for leaking information to the media. Whether those suspicions are right or wrong is irrelevant. A number of Ministers are convinced they are true and that has created unhealthy suspicion around the Cabinet table, which in turn has stifled full discussion of problems. A lot of things will have to be sorted out after the May 23rd elections if the Coalition is to recover the confidence of earlier days and have any prospect of winning a second term.

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