Political skill at play in face of unpopular reforms


INSIDE POLITICS:Governing in a time of austerity is an enormous challenge for politicians in a democracy. It is not enough to do the right thing, it is also essential to bring a reluctant public along with the difficult decisions that will hurt them in the short term.

In that context the deal between the Government and the major unions on reducing the public service pay bill is a hugely important step on the road to economic recovery. Persuading the leaders of the big unions to accept the deal was a significant political achievement for which Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin deserves enormous credit.

The key union leaders too deserve a great deal of credit for making the hard choices in the long-term interests of their members and of the country when it would have been easier to engage in the populist posturing some of their peers found irresistible.

It is impossible to say at this stage whether or not the deal will be accepted by the union members. While it will be implemented one way or another it will obviously be far better for all concerned if it is done by agreement.

The political impact of the agreement should be to take some of the pressure off Labour TDs. The fact that the union leadership has signed up for the deal will make it easier for the party’s TDs to back the legislation required to give effect to its terms and that in turn should reinforce the stability of the Coalition.

Histrionics from the rejectionist union leaders and potential disruption to key public services can be expected but the deal is done and nobody doubts that it will be implemented. Whatever about industrial action the prospects of political turmoil arising from public service pay cuts has certainly receded.

Pressure off

Labour backbenchers will not now come under the kind of intense pressure they would inevitably have faced if they were forced to vote for legislation imposing pay cuts after an open breach with the trade union movement. Fine Gael backbenchers who have been restive about the differential between pay and conditions in the public and private sectors should also have their concerns assuaged by the deal.

Crucially for the reputation of the Coalition, the reduction of €1 billion in the pay and pensions bill over the next three years will keep the country on target to exit the EU-IMF bailout on schedule. When taken in tandem with the modest increase in employment revealed in the latest official figures it is another straw in the wind suggesting that the worst of the recession may be over. Of course there is no guarantee that either of the Government parties will get much credit when the electorate ultimately gives its verdict on their performance. The example of Italy where a political crook and a comedian did so well in last weekend’s election is not exactly a hopeful sign.

One of the most experienced politicians in the EU, Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, remarked at an earlier stage in the euro crisis: “We all know what to do but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” That would certainly seem to apply to Italy and it may well apply here come the next election.

That should not bother the Government too much. Most of the Cabinet are vastly experienced politicians who have seen just how fickle the electorate can be. For more than a decade Bertie Ahern was the most popular taoiseach since such a measurement was devised by opinion pollsters half a century ago. What does that popularity amount to now? The Coalition’s only option is to stay the course, restore the public finances to health, hope economic recovery has set in by the time the election comes around and accept the electorate’s verdict.

Enda Kenny and his Cabinet know their place in the history books is assured if they get it right, regardless of short-term unpopularity or even the loss of power at the next election. What they have to do in the shorter term is demonstrate the necessary political skill to keep the show on the road while implementing necessary reforms. That is why the deal on public pay was so important. It was a demonstration that politics with all its messy compromises does work.

Some wise words on Irish politics were uttered during the week by former Labour Party press officer Tony Heffernan, one of the most respected backroom officials to work in Leinster House in recent decades.

Speaking at the launch of a book about his political life* Heffernan, who began his political journey in Sinn Féin in the 1960s, started in unusual fashion by saying that there were things he regretted in his career, principally his youthful support for physical force as a means of promoting political objectives.

No justification

He recalled that the atmosphere in the 1960s was very different, with the civil rights movement in the US and assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the student revolution in Paris and dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece. Nonetheless, he said, there was no justification then or now for violence in Ireland, North or South.

Heffernan expressed his affection for, despite all its faults, the Dáil and its procedures, quoting Churchill’s famous dictum: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” He also said that most of the politicians he had met from all parties were decent people trying to do the best for their country.

At a time when corrosive cynicism about politics in Ireland is so fashionable it was refreshing to hear someone who has devoted his life to promoting the cause of the left, most recently as press officer for Michael D Higgins in the presidential election, giving two cheers for our democracy.

* Tony Heffernan: From Merrion Square to Merrion Street by Brian Kenny

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