Discipline and defections

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

Any deviation from party discipline in the Dáil is regarded as a hanging offence. It represents a throwback to a system devised by the Irish Party in the House of Commons two centuries ago. So when Labour party chairman Colm Keaveney voted against a cut in welfare payments, the penalty was automatic expulsion. In other democracies where the executive is less dominant, allowances are made for strongly held, personal views. Such flexibility would encourage greater political maturity here. In most cases, personal ambition and party loyalty would provide the required discipline.

In spite of Mr Keaveney’s defection, reports of a Cabinet in disarray and of Fine Gael and Labour Party TDs in open rebellion failed to live up to billing. The Budget passed with a 40-vote majority and its reluctant supporters looked to the future. That cohesion suggests the Government remains capable of introducing constitutional change and of passing difficult legislation. Its honeymoon period with the electorate is, however, over. Ministers should shift focus beyond immediate fiscal concerns and implement necessary structural and administrative reforms. After almost two years in office, they should specify aspects of the programme for government that will be prioritised. Structural reform in the health sector will be the next big test.

Backbenchers are keenly aware a full-blown property tax will have a greater impact on their re-election prospects than cuts in welfare. They are hunkering down for the long haul. Front-loading next year’s fiscal pain offered some reassurance. But the end of the tunnel is at least two years away. Before that they will have to convince the public of their ability to improve job prospects and defend living standards. The Budget offered incentives to small and medium enterprises in order to kick-start the economy. The export sector is growing and there are signs of returning public confidence. Next year, money raised from the sale of State assets will be used for job creation. Economic success, however, will depend largely on international developments.

Heated debate saw the last vestiges of “constructive opposition” disappear from Fianna Fáil’s agenda. Having agreed a property tax with the troika, the party now opposes its introduction. And while Taoiseach Enda Kenny complained that Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams were engaging in populist politics, they were doing no more than mimicking what he himself had practised in opposition. Such catch-all, outraged politics has passed its sell-by date with a disillusioned electorate. Relaxation of the whip system would reduce the dominance of the executive and enhance the power of parliament. The Government’s overwhelming majority would allow for such reform without threatening its existence.

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