Infighting and turbulence in Government ahead of elections

Labour is very vulnerable in the local elections, writes Arthur Beesley, Political News Editor

The Easter break will provide something of a reprieve for the Government before campaigning begins in earnest for the local and European elections in five weeks. File photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times.

The Easter break will provide something of a reprieve for the Government before campaigning begins in earnest for the local and European elections in five weeks. File photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times.

Thu, Apr 17, 2014, 12:45

The Dáil and Seanad rise today for the Easter break, providing something of a reprieve for the Government before campaigning begins in earnest for the local and European elections in five weeks. These polls stand as the Coalition’s first national test since it took power in 2011, prompting inevitable anxieties in both Fine Gael and Labour about the potential for an electoral bloody nose.

Labour is plainly the more vulnerable of the two, but the endeavour is not risk-free for Fine Gael. This is the unavoidable prism through which the outbreak of unseemly Coalition infighting over water charges must be seen. Whatever the truth in the deluge of claim and counter-claim from both parties, the situation is all the more volatile because the Government is having a pretty torrid time of it generally.

If Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore started the year on a high after exiting the EU/International Monetary Fund bailout without precautionary aid, their administration has been blighted by turbulence and internecine rows in the 16 weeks since.

The unedifying intrigue over water charges is but one of many ongoing squabbles. One Garda controversy has followed another with ever-increasing gravity, badly underming the authority of Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. The funding of universal health insurance remains a riddle, pitting Minister for Health James Reilly against Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. There have also been fights and rowbacks over electricity pylons and legal reforms.

It’s not quite a crisis a day but a certain lack of composure within the ranks of Government is all-too evident. Everything remotely contentious seems to become a fight of some sort, no matter what the political magnitude of the issue in question. What is more, many of these tricky controversies have not actually been resolved so they will quickly return to the fore of the political agenda.

There will be renewed action in the Garda affair and in the water debacle once the post-Easter political season begins, action that will be all the more intensive in light of the elections.

The argument is repeatedly made in Coalition circles that all of this heralds a return to normal politics after the instrusive traumas of the bailout. In such accounts, the strcitures on the two parties were so tight and the financial crisis so profound as to leave both with little room for political manoeuvre. Relations were therefore more harmonious even if there was no shortage of rows and arguments.

But now it’s worse. Not only is there the troublesome matter of the May 23rd elections, which bring with them the threat of instability in the Coalition. But there is exhaustion too, the Government having been on the stressful threadmill of non-stop action ever since it took office. Nerves are increasingly frayed, and smallish things that might not ordinarily try the patience of Ministers and their servants increasingly do.

All of this was the backdrop for a long discussion at the Cabinet on Tuesday on the necessity for the Government to regain the political initiative. Loud among the speakers was Noonan, who rather enjoys his elder status in Government as the sage voice of wisdom. His reflections, mirrored by other speakers of rank, are said to have centred on “how the Government has lost its way and how things can be turned around.”

The prevailing sense, according a well-placed source, was that the Government needs to refocus swiftly and turn the political agenda to its own advantage. So far, so sensible. But that was Tuesday. Even as another Cabinet meeting got under way the very next morning on the water question, Labour sent salvos of dire warnings to insist agreement would not be struck that day just because Fine Gael wanted to “railroad” the junior party into a deal. The meeting duly ended without a settlement.

This means the Coalition will have to return to the matter when business resumes the week after next, bringing water charges right into the centre of election debate. That was always going to be the case, for the question is as much a gift to the Opposition as it is toxic on the Government side. Still, the very postponement of the final decision on the charges will only add to the political potency of the matter when the time comes.

What smacks most about this latest row is the setting more than the substance. After months of niggling woe and with the gauntlet of the electorate still to run in May, a sense of disquiet within the Government is plain to see.

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