Enda Kenny a ‘lame duck’ as politics grinds to a halt

Vacuum in weakening Fine Gael as early election in prospect after con of ‘new politics’

 

To describe what’s happening in Ireland as “new politics” is like describing a 1980s Lada as the future of the automobile industry.

What a con that phrase has turned out to be. And the more it’s used by any politician struggling to put a meaning on the unfamiliar landscape of the moment, the more meaningless it has become.

It has become the “going forward” of the 32nd Dáil.

What we have witnessed since the Government has been formed has not been “new politics”, rather the slow, grinding strangulation of politics itself.

The events of the past week point to the sclerosis that is “new politics”. Not all of them could be blamed wholly on the Government, but it took the whole of the political hit for them.

Firstly, the Government floated the idea of an all-island forum to respond to Brexit. Nobody bothered to see if the DUP was interested in the concept. The idea sunk like a stone when the North’s First Minister Arlene Foster rejected it. It led to the (unjustified) charge that the Government had no proper contingency plan for Brexit.

A senior Government source said the opposite was the case. It had, in fact, spent months preparing for all eventualities. The head of the EU office in the Department of the Taoiseach Rory Montgomery had visited key capitals in the months preceding the vote. The ESRI had been commissioned to research the consequences of Brexit last November. Its finding was stark – a potential hit of €10 billion per annum.

“The Brexiteers in Britain did not have a Plan A, let alone a Plan B,” said the senior Government source. “We had a huge amount of work done, yet were accused of not doing anything.”

Contingency planning

Next up the new chairman of the expert commission on water charging Joe O’Toole spoke too much about his views on water charges. Then he explained too much. It was very uncharacteristic for the canny O’Toole. He then was placed in the political version of Graham Norton’s red chair. Everyone knew what would happen next.

Ultimately there was no one to blame but himself, but a reference by O’Toole to Fianna Fáil in his resignation statement cemented the notion that the main Opposition party was running the show by proxy.

The next haymaker came from inside. Minister for Transport Shane Ross and two junior ministers from the Independent Alliance, Finian McGrath and John Halligan, told their Cabinet colleagues they would be supporting Mick Wallace’s Bill on fatal foetal abnormalities. This despite advice from the Attorney General that the Bill was unconstitutional.

There is a lot of very careful language in the programme for government specifically designed to lock Ross and company into collective Cabinet responsibility.

In a true Sir Humphrey moment, we were told the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility still held, except for, erm, when it did not hold. And that the free vote for the Independent Alliance was a once-off, presumably until the next time the Independent Alliance decided it wanted a free vote.

The response of Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the stance of Ross was one of resignation, like an eagle with clipped wings. To his colleagues in Fine Gael, it felt like a collapsed scrum.

“Nobody in Government has shown any real courage,” said an experienced Fine Gael TD, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Kenny and his senior people including Noonan no longer seem energised. They no longer seem to have any big ambition for the country and for policy. They seem to spend their days avoiding confrontation.”

And that sense of enfeeblement of Fine Gael was what irked some of the party’s backbench TDs. The mood was not helped by the surprise announcement from Kenny that he was reappointing James Reilly, now a Senator, to be deputy leader. With some prescience (the meeting came ahead of The Irish Times poll that showed a nine-point surge for Fianna Fáil), the great unmentionable – Kenny’s future – was finally broached by Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd and Cork South-West deputy Jim Daly.

The new Government was an experiment – a self-styled partnership Government – and only formed since May. In the first flush of optimism, there was talk of Kenny’s leadership having more longevity that some had predicted. But as the weeks have passed, the Government has been handed a series of Dáil defeats, or been bested by the Opposition.

There is almost wholesale agreement among TDs from all parties that the next election will take place in 2017, most likely in the spring. That creates a vacuum in Fine Gael – Kenny has said he will not lead the party in the next election.

“If the election is less than a year away,” said the Fine Gael TD, “He’s a lame duck and has to go. Andrew McDowell [one of his two trusted special advisers] going to the European Investment Bank to me was a signal we are coming close to the end.”

Leading contenders

Leo VaradkarSimon CoveneyFrances FitzgeraldMargaret Thatcher

It’s not just about Fine Gael’s current travails: there’s a wider malaise occurring. Its symptoms are fragmentation; namely the erosion of the hegemony of the two largest parties. In the general election of 1982, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, garnered 80 per cent of the vote between them. Now the figure is well south of 60, perhaps lower than 55.

A vastly experienced Minister, ordering breakfast at the counter of the Dáil canteen, remarks in passing that Ireland’s form of proportional representation is the most democratic in Europe.

“Unfortunately, it does not lend itself to stability,” he said, referring to the lack of a clear-cut winner. When it’s put to him that Ireland may be like Spain where after six months of stasis, a second clear-the-air election failed to deliver a decisive result, it was pointed out that Spain’s querulous regions made it different.

Another senior Minister believes the electoral system makes Ireland as indecisive as Spain. “Volatile is the new normal,” he said, adding the old certainties and traditions of family votes have not transitioned in a society that has become urbanised and complex.

In other words, majority coalitions will be the exception rather than the rule. There are mixed views among his colleagues on this point. Some believe it is an unduly pessimistic outlook and point to The Irish Times poll as a sign of the Big Two reasserting themselves.

Perhaps the Scandinavian model of minority rule, based on barter, dealmaking and compromise, will become the norm over time. That said, its start in Ireland has been fitful. The programme for government is an unusual document, focusing largely on the here-and-now crisis issues: water charges, housing, homelessness, the Eighth Amendment.

The Government’s programme for legislation is the thinnest every produced. Legislation is no longer the creature of Government alone but can be generated from all quarters. The difficulty is there is no legislation. The new responsibilities on parliamentary committees to conduct detailed prelegislative scrutiny is welcome, but will involve onerous demands.

As of now, only a miserly 11 Bills will be published by the end of summer, with only four more in the pipeline. Most are technical carryovers; some are time-sensitive, such as the legislation to suspend water charges, and the cynical capitulation by Fine Gael to the demand of rural TDs to de-designate some raised bogs as Natural Heritage Areas. The 32nd Dáil may go down in the record books as the scantiest for legislation.

A bigger concern, often expressed by TDs from centrist parties, is that the set-up is so fragile, it will be impossible for the Government to take any really hard decisions (ie ones that are not crowd-pleasers). They could amount to anything from responding to the chilling effects of a British recession to tough climate change decisions, to taking on public sector unions.

In the past, minority governments, such as the Conservatives in Canada under Stephen Harper, have successfully confronted the opposition by threatening them with an election every time they challenged the government.

It has not happened yet with this Government, which has lost votes, or folded, in response to cannily-chosen Private Members’ Bills. The notion that it is dependent on Fianna Fáil support for survival has also taken hold. That was reflected in the poll. A number of backbench TDs are growing impatient at this.

Sinn Féin is in no doubt as to how “new politics” works. Its position was best summed up by party leader Gerry Adams in an exchange with Kenny in the Dáil: “In keeping with the fiction of new politics, do you have to ask [Micheál] Martin for permission to do that?”

Responsible stance

“A lot of our people are getting itchy feet in the last few days. It’s not in the interest of the country to go now. The result would be as indecisive as it was last February.”

The party’s “confidence and supply” arrangement with Fine Gael is for three budgets. Most Fianna Fáil TDs say they cannot really look beyond the October budget, as they believe a general election will be called.

Ed Brophy was chief of staff for then tánaiste Joan Burton when Labour was in government. Now working outside politics, he describes the phenomenon of ‘new politics’ as a “joke”.

“It’s a misnomer. It’s not new politics; it is no politics at all,” he said.

“It won’t deliver anything. It’s a fudge with outcome. It will be unable to grapple with hard decisions. The dynamics of Government and of the other parties do not lend themselves to that.”

“The second problem is there was no foundation to new politics. There were no papers on it or think-tanks. It just happened. So new politics is a symptom rather than a cause.”

“The reason we have new politics is because we had fudgy uncertainty [after the election].”

The experiment is not yet 100 days old and it is perhaps too early to dismiss “new politics” out of hand. Brophy is one of a surprising number who already believe new politics has already run its course. He uses a tasty metaphor to illustrate his point.

“The plane of politics has taken off the runway without anyone checking it or seeing if the pilot can fly. For that reason it will start reeling and then crash.”

That, of course, will happen. The unknown part is when.

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