Rising swell of apprehension as political drift continues
Bickering over the next government brings concerns that lack of a deal could end badly
Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny: as talks continue there are fears that the absence of a government with decision-making powers means policy problems are piling up and there are also concerns about the inherent frailty of any minority administration. File photograph: Aidan Crawley
Prolonged bickering over the next government is viewed in official circles with ever-increasing apprehension. It’s not that fear is rampant in the corridors, but there is concern that the lack of a deal could lead to something nasty.
There are two dimensions to this. The first centres on anxiety that the absence of a government with decision-making power means that policy problems are piling up, with settlement of these all the more difficult the longer political drift goes on.
The second centres on the inherent frailty of any minority administration, all the more so if reliance on Independents means that constituency interests trump the national picture.
Such is the residue of the Dáil stalemate which feeds into the lack of political authority in the engine room of State. This makes it difficult to deal with trade union rumblings over public pay, not to mention budget overruns and missed targets.
“It’s okay at the moment, but it’s becoming more problematic,” said a denizen of the bureaucratic world. “Issues will eventually mount up that need to be dealt with. Some people are thinking ‘it’s grand, we can do some work’. But beneath it all there’s concern that something could happen.”
This person says an average weekly Cabinet meeting might take 30 items: 15 of them utterly uncontroversial; 10 which require “thinking”; with the remaining five firmly in the the realm of the controversial, necessitating slippery trade-offs.
It’s perfectly fine, therefore, if President Michael D Higgins needs permission to leave the State. It’s also fine if non-sensitive Army appointments are to be made. Yet that’s the simple stuff, which is supposed to tick over nicely. The real business of government, centred on the nitty-gritty stuff, never ticks over nicely. If only. Yes, an administration on auto-pilot can do some things. But it can’t do everything.
Take the convenient example of the High Court ruling this week which found the law on judicial power to activate suspended sentences was a violation of the Constitution. The need for emergency legislation in this instance is not really controversial but the affair illustrates how new challenges can emerge, seemingly from nowhere, and impose themselves on the top of the political agenda.
Remedial movesAnother example is the Brexit referendum in June. No snag if the British people vote to remain in the EU. However, a vote to leave could trigger economic or financial market shock, necessitating remedial moves in Dublin to deal with the fiscal consequences. This is at odds with political talk during and after the election campaign, predicated as it is on uninterrupted growth and the availability of ever-expanding budgetary largesse for years to come.
A rather disturbing National Competitiveness Council report this week on escalating and continuously high costs in a myriad of sectors provides yet another example. The council finds a litany of distress in the property market, warning of threats to the entire economy. One such risk centres on wage pressure flowing from high property prices and low supply.
This may be crying out for immediate political action but an effective way forward is not particularly clear, and the outgoing Coalition is as lacking in freedom of movement as it is in authority.
Easy remediesThat’s not all, of course. A new administration may, or may not, be tacked together in coming days. Even if a government is formed, however, it would be foolish to believe there would be easy remedies within its grasp to intractable problems which are many years in the making. The record of the outgoing administration – and those of its predecessors – demonstrates that in spades.
Furthermore, a minority government will set forth with only shallow reserves of authority and limited scope for manoeuvre. In that setting solutions are all the more difficult to develop.
This is to say nothing of the ever-present possibility of serious events erupting in the face of an unsuspecting administration, a concern both for the party in command of a minority government and for the party which props it up in opposition.
Then there is the matter of the Independents. There is guarded backroom talk of unreasonable “Dart to Dingle” demands for local favours, and concern too that some would be likely to bolt from government the minute the going gets rough.
With all of that in mind it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the present period of uncertainty will be followed by another.