The revelations about the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner and the resignation of the Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary, which will convulse politics today and surely lead to more resignations, are deeply damaging for the Government, the Taoiseach, the two old "establishment" parties – and for the coalition's ongoing efforts to manage the pandemic. It is far more serious than the resignation of Barry Cowen from the same post a month ago, and has profoundly destabilised the coalition government.
The most serious immediate consequence of the affair is to undermine the government’s authority in dealing with Covid-19 at exactly the time it is needed most. In that regard, it would be difficult to think of a more irresponsible act on the part of those who attended.
The current phase of the management of the pandemic – opening up schools along with other parts of social and economic life, while at the same time managing a potentially disastrous resurgence of the virus – requires public trust that the Government knows what it is doing and co-operation with the measures it has introduced.
That public trust has now been deeply undermined – and perhaps destroyed entirely – by the revelations which, on the most benign interpretation, demonstrate a willingness to bend the regulations and on a more realistic one show the Oireachtas golfers were willing to disregard them altogether.
One of the most powerful and popular critiques of the parties that have led every government of the State is that they sometimes act as if the rules do not apply to them. It would be hard to think of a case which more vividly illustrates this idea.
There is a mixture of horror and panic in Government, as the extent of the scandal, and the potential fallout from it, dawns on people. Ministers, TDs, officials and aides are scrolling through their social media feeds and cowering in the face of a tsunami of outrage. Some senior figures fear that the Government has just lost the public, and won’t get them back: that this is a decisive moment for this administration.
These are undoubtedly febrile times in politics. It is reminiscent of nothing so much as the autumn of 2010, when the country slid inexorably towards a choice between bankruptcy or bailout. Then, in another hotel in Galway, Taoiseach Brian Cowen undermined his own authority catastrophically by staying up late singing and drinking and sounding hungover for a Morning Ireland interview the following morning.
But Cowen’s government did not collapse because of “garglegate” as it inevitably became known; the government collapsed because it had to submit to the EU-IMF bailout. The more substantial thing always matters more. So it will be with this government.
This government will stand or fall on its handling of the pandemic and its management of the economic and social fallout from this historic challenge. In the coming weeks, it faces make or break challenges in managing the latest spike in infections, getting children back to school and handling the Leaving Cert results. These are the things that matter most and on which the fate of the government will rest. But there is little doubt that this has now – because of the golf dinner and the undermining of public confidence and co-operation that come with it – become a much more difficult task.