Playing a political long game


As economic gloom starts to lift and political parties assess their prospects for 2014, Ireland’s exit from the IMF/EU bailout has been represented as the most significant development of 2013. It is an interesting conceit in terms of building confidence in economic recovery, but the event – welcome as it was – represented only one stage in a complicated process. Oversight of fiscal policy will continue and decisions by our EU partners and the international financial markets will profoundly influence the speed and stability of recovery.

Local and European elections in June will allow the electorate to punish Fine Gael and the Labour Party for unwise and broken promises. The parties have a long way to fall because of strong results they achieved in 2009 when Fianna Fáil haemorrhaged votes. Fine Gael emerged as the largest party at local authority level at that time while the Labour Party gained control in Dublin. The outcome set them up to win the general election.

While candidate quality, rather than party affiliation, tends to influence local elections, three years of hardship have provided voters with many reasons to be angry. To minimise losses, the Government is arranging an Oireachtas inquiry into the banking guarantee that will refocus public attention on the political architects of that austerity. Abolition of town councils, involving redundancy for six hundred councillors in a local government reform programme, may have a negative impact. Sentiment can be fickle on such issues, however, and the prospect of fewer local politicians might be welcomed as a good thing. A serious reversal at county council level would have lasting effects on both parties

The shock defeat in the Seanad referendum and the limited fallout it generated suggested the public was more interested in giving the Government a bloody nose than in the issue itself. In stark contrast, the Fine Gael party was convulsed and Mr Kenny’s leadership was challenged when legislation to allow for abortion in limited circumstances was introduced. A revolt against the party whip saw Lucinda Creighton lead five members to establish Reform Alliance. The group has stopped short of forming a political party but that option is likely to be reviewed after the local elections.

Election strategies

The Taoiseach wasn’t the only one to have his authority challenged on abortion. Within Fianna Fáil, Micheal Martin was forced to allow a free vote and was mortified when a majority of his members opposed the legislation. A single, temporary defection took place within Sinn Féin. If the Labour Party anticipated that passage of the legislation would bring public approval, it was disappointed. Support for the party continued to fall as Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore faced internal criticism and working class antipathy though there was a small upturn at the end of the year. The introduction of a property tax rankled. And while the Haddington Road Agreement represented a considerable Government achievement, it did not find favour with Labour supporters. Pushed into a poor fifth place, behind Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independents, signs of job creation and a recovering economy brought relief.

In spite of these pressures, Fine Gael is on the front foot as it contemplates possible strategies for a general election in 2016. Both Government parties have seen support rise in tandem with economic activity and the electorate’s sense that the worst of the recession may have passed. Strong domestic growth projections from employers’ group IBEC and from the ESRI added layers of reassurance as the parties unveiled their seven-year economic strategy.

The Government has been playing a long game since it took office in 2011. Delivery of a universal healthcare system would, it told voters, require two terms in office. And now its strategy for growth and employment will run until 2020. Targets are relatively modest. To ensure a good start, unemployment for 2013 was fixed at 13.5 per cent, a full percentage point above the end-of-year figure. Growth may also exceed predictions.

Past echoes

Echoes from the past are not always welcome. The Smithwick tribunal findings, which found evidence of Garda collusion in the murder of two senior RUC officers in 1989, caused public shock and dismay. It prompted apologies from the Government and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. It also raised concern on other issues involving discipline and ethical behaviour within the Garda Síochána.

In Northern Ireland, former US envoy Richard Haass grappled with the fears and sensibilities of a divided community. Non-binding recommendations to Stormont may follow. The exercise exposed the gulf that remains between political parties in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement and their unwillingness to commit to a shared future.