Miriam Lord: What to do with this runt of a Dáil – rip it up or pull like a dog?

‘The New Politics’ is the unappealing offspring of the old, but more ineffectual

After a “seismic shift” and months of agonised huffing and puffing, Election 2016 produced a runt of a Dáil.

They had to call it something.

So they did.

It was christened “the New Politics”.

Or to give it its full title, "New Politics me arse", as Gerry Adams reminded us before Christmas.

NPMA – you’d be afraid to let it out on its own.

Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin's rickety enterprise didn't get started properly until the middle of May last year, but its future is already in doubt.

What to do, lads?

Rip it up and start again?

Or close yer eyes and pull like a dog?

Maybe the best thing to do is rip it up, put the poor dog out of its misery. But the bill would be costly and the main political parties, never mind the Independents, can’t afford to pay for an election rerun at the moment. Nevertheless, just 12 months after the country went to the polls, the general consensus around Leinster House is that the Government, and NPMA, is on its last legs.

Enda Kenny's second consecutive term in office didn't have the best start in life. It began with a lengthy battle for power. Fine Gael eventually won custody with the aid of some flighty political paramours from the Independent Alliance.

But Fianna Fáil didn't abdicate its duties, undertaking to support the sickly child with regular maintenance, a "confidence and supply" agreement and full visitation and meddling rights. It is lending this support with the best of bad grace, while the Fine Gael minority deeply resent its interference and having to depend on it for vital support. It's not the best recipe for harmonious living.

But at least the two main parties got together to make a Government – that’s the virtue underpinning their reluctant union. And when the fragile relationship hits a rocky patch, the two of them stare pointedly in the direction of Sinn Féin and point out that at least they were willing to give the arrangement a go.

This time last year, Fine Gael was coming to terms with the fact that it had completely misjudged the public mood

Someone had to take responsibility for the offspring of that seismic shift.

Commendable application

In the process, we have been given "the New Politics". This newspaper, with commendable application and civic-mindedness, has been endeavouring over the past week to analyse it. The best bit so far has been Harry McGee's list of 10 changes that NPMA has brought to the Oireachtas. He deserves a medal for coming up with them, although we understand he had been hoping for a nice round dozen until he lost the will to live.

Harry came up with a rundown of housekeeping changes: no pairing arrangements; more committees; less speaking time for deputies from the larger parties and more for Independents from cobbled-together convenience groups – that sort of thing.

Most of the changes aren’t working particularly well. There hasn’t been much legislation as a result and the Dáil is trundling on pretty much the same as always.

NPMA is merely the outcome of the old numbers game.

This time last year, Fine Gael was coming to terms with the fact that it had completely misjudged the public mood, made a total mess of its election campaign and almost handed power back to a party the electorate tried to bury five years ago. It would be another two months before we got a Government. And by then, Dáil Éireann was on the run into the summer recess.

One constant since then has been the question of Enda Kenny’s leadership of Fine Gael. It surfaced on the first day of the count when the early figures pointed to an election flop for his outgoing administration.

Pretender to the throne Leo Varadkar was asked about his intentions while the votes were still warm. He didn't want to think about it. "I, I, I, don't . . . This is not happening! I certainly hope it doesn't."

But the move to find a new Fine Gael leader was already happening and it’s still inching along in slow motion as Enda Kenny prepares to step down sometime soon. All the wearisome year, people have been wondering what the identity of our next taoiseach will be.

“The Simon and Leo show” – a reference by the Fianna Fáil leader last month to frontrunners Coveney and Varadkar – provided some distraction from the Government’s day-to-day business of pushing difficult issues into committees for further examination and keeping Micheál Martin sweet.

Fine guff

In May, when the 32nd Dáil finally got down to work, there was some fine guff from the Taoiseach and his new supporting partner. This was a new dawn, with Fianna Fáil pledging to support a minority Fine Gael government, thus rebranding the old politics as shiny and different.

“Fianna Fáil knew, as we did, that with the election the traditional rules no longer applied. It was fitting that on the centenary of the Rising of 1916, both parties managed to start to sweep away some of the old ways and find a way to work together,” quivered Enda. “I thank the party opposite for that.”

Twelve months on and they have to be dug out of each other on a regular basis.

Kenny's second government lurched into action, with Fine Gael held together by the sticky tape of a handful of Independents and a slightly menacing Fianna Fáil

"I believe the 32nd Dáil will mark a new and collaborative approach, not only with the partners of Government but indeed with the partners of the Opposition," continued the Taoiseach. "I believe all of us in the house are ad idem, that our function is to use government, and see it used, to effect the kind of change, opportunity and compassion we need and desire in our society."

He pledged to bring about the “many cultural and attitudinal changes that are required to bring about a government, in a minority situation, that will be in the interests of all our people and our country”.

Micheál Martin was also starry-eyed.

“We have chosen the path of constructive opposition and will not bring down the Government if it honours an agreed broad policy framework,” he said. “Equally, we retain the right and intention to use our mandate to try to construct majority support for our policy initiatives.”

Sinn Féin had no time for this new approach. Independent Finian McGrath, kicking up his heels in the high chair at the Cabinet table as a super junior minister, dismissed their disdain: “It’s a new Government, power-sharing. Get over it.”

Then he did a bit of air guitar for Winston Churchtown, the new Minister for Transport, who deeply impressed himself in January by boarding the number 44 omnibus all on his own and live-tweeting his experience. Winston, aka Lord Ross of Dublin South, is the poster child for NPMA, which is a lovely thought.

And so Kenny's second government lurched into action, with Fine Gael held together by the sticky tape of a handful of Independents and a slightly menacing Fianna Fáil. Katherine Zappone and Denis Naughten are getting on with their ministerial jobs with a lot of application and the least amount of drama. The members of the Independent Alliance, on the other hand, have elevated flouncing and umbrage to an art form.

Wonderful rows

In the Dáil, the new business committee is having wonderful rows, deeply resented by the main parties, who argue that they should get the lion’s share of speaking time as they won the lion’s share of the votes.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is performing consistently well and has the air of an organisation preparing to retake power. Mary Lou McDonald is looking every inch a leader when she fills in for Gerry Adams, while Brendan Howlin is battling hard to keep the Labour Party's head above water.

A year on and this week's Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll shows the two main parties almost at level-pegging in terms of support, with Sinn Féin coming up nicely on the inside.

On those results, none of them will want to see the inside of a campaign bus for a while, but the increasing tension between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the high-wire antics of some Independents, the consequences of Enda Kenny’s long goodbye, or another controversy like the Government’s mishandling of the whistleblower controversy, could trigger a rush to the polls and a second helping of stalemate.

The saga of water charges refuses to go away. The latest twist in the watery tale has seen Fianna Fáil open up a new battlefront with Sinn Féin over which party is most passionate about wanting to ban the charges. As they both militantly cherish their U-turns on the issue, Fine Gael is refusing to support any legislation from Opposition parties to abolish the charges completely.

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney is sticking to the policy that Fianna Fáil once supported before Micheál Martin cynically opted for the Groucho Marx approach to politics: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.”

It seems like schoolyard stuff, all this headbutting over who takes ownership of the issue. There is even talk of bringing down the Government.

Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness summed up the silliness of it all yesterday by remarking to RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke that the latest spat over water is all about “Simon Coveney standing up and trying to push Fianna Fáil around”.

Poor diddums.

We’ll leave McGuinness with the last of too many words on this unremarkable first year of NPMA:

“We have no new politics, we’ve a very poor Government, and the structures that are in the committees and in the Dáil itself are simply not working. We need a Government that works and that can make decisions. It’s ridiculous in Leinster House at present.”