Edging towards a general election

 

THE GOVERNMENT is edging, extremely slowly, towards a general election and the public may get a clearer idea of when it will be held when the Dáil meets next week. Having announced his intention of forcing Fianna Fáil to call an election before the end of January, Minister for the Environment John Gormley now appears willing to wait until Green Party legislation has been enacted. The situation has been further complicated by vague talk of holding a referendum on the same date. This amounts to an unwillingness to face the electorate. Only one piece of legislation is required before the Dáil is dissolved and that is the Finance Bill. It could be enacted quickly if the political will exists.

Fianna Fáil has been transfixed by leadership difficulties and by its disastrous showing in the opinion polls. Selection conventions have not been held in many constituencies. A growing number of Ministers and senior TDs have decided to retire rather than face an uncertain and – in some cases – a less-well-paid future, even if re-elected. Morale is so damaged that the prospect of rejecting all serving Cabinet members as potential replacements for Brian Cowen is being openly canvassed. Such uncertainty, division and confusion promise a massive change in personnel whenever the election takes place.

The new Dáil session is likely to witness growing tensions between Fine Gael and the Labour Party as they jockey for political advantage. Eamon Gilmore has promised a vote of “no confidence” in the Government if an election is not called before the end of the month. That motion may not be carried, given the voting majorities enjoyed by Government before the Christmas recess. But it would cause embarrassment to the Green Party while generating some useful publicity for Labour. Already, in his drive to be taoiseach, Mr Gilmore has rejected Sinn Féin as a potential partner and announced his determination to push Fine Gael into second place. Such a combative approach will enliven the coming months.

Having recovered its position as the largest political party in recent opinion polls, Fine Gael spokesmen will be determined to display their ministerial potential. Tremendous challenges lie ahead for any government because of the cost-cutting required as part of the EU/IMF bailout package. Unless specific savings can be made through voluntary public service reforms, further pay cuts will be required. There is also an urgent need for a jobs creation programme.

The Green Party is anxious to leave a political legacy, including legislation on climate change and a directly elected lord mayor for Dublin. But it may face considerable difficulties in achieving that ambition. Sinn Féin will attempt to build on the momentum gained in the Donegal South-West byelection by having party president Gerry Adams returned for Louth. With cabinet positions at stake, Fine Gael and the Labour Party can be expected to go at each other “hammer and tongs”. Politics is in such flux that traditional conventions and niceties no longer apply.