In 10 weeks and two days the Government will be reshuffled.
It is a matter of intense political focus, but far less public interest. It will scatter the spoils of office but hardly influence the distribution of power.
It is a phenomenon how the hard scrabble of political life, rewarded if lucky with ministerial office, is equalled only occasionally by the capacity to exercise power. The scrabble is getting harder. Private space off stage for politicians is getting smaller. The pace of electoral turnover is quickening. To get even a short turn on the merry-go-round is, at least, validation of sorts.
Swapping the office of taoiseach is a benchmark of future political versatility. It is the reverse of the fall of Albert Reynolds’s government 28 years ago. Then Labour, his coalition partner, left the coalition with Fianna Fáil, realigned with Fine Gael and Democratic Left, to form the Rainbow government in the same Dáil, without an election.
Contrary to the lore of a failed state, the 1937 Constitution is remarkably resilient architecture for changing politics. Politics, however, has proven less capable of managing changing expectations.
One benefit of last week’s budget splurge of €11 billion is that it may be sufficient antidote to keep politics off the streets this winter. If it does, it has probably met its main objective.
It has done the Government no good politically, however, if opinion polls are correct. This is now a country where people can no longer be bought with their own money. If true, that is an appalling vista for politics.
The row about a levy on concrete blocks tells all we need to know about where power lies and how it is exercised
It raises the more profound question of why the Government is chasing the rainbow of public support, with public money, in ways that ultimately bear down on the young and the houseless. It is not just that support from these groups has plummeted for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the conversation has stopped.
The row about a levy on concrete blocks tells all we need to know about where power lies and how it is exercised. It is questionable if solidarity with those afflicted by mica in their homes should extend to rebuilding houses sometimes beyond the size of an average home. That cost is borne in part by those, overwhelmingly younger, who can’t afford any house of their own.
The idea of a levy is a good one, however. It expands the tax base on a once-off basis. The obvious place for a levy was to add it to our feeble property tax. Putting it, instead, on blocks increases the cost for all buildings, from new houses to productive infrastructure. Home owners who are overwhelmingly a little better off than the houseless young, would have contributed something back.
If you are housed and over 50 you are better off by accident simply because we house-hunted in the right decade. You are also cruising towards an old age pension years before you are likely to be incapable of further work. In a final display of bad manners, you will probably enjoy indecent longevity afterwards.
But this is where power lies, and how it is exercised. The parlour game of reshuffles is of little consequence to anyone except those immediately involved. But for them, it is all. Outside, the social contract is broken. Even €11 billion is not enough wallpaper to cover over the cracks.
The object of the reshuffle is continuity, not change. The Greens have indicated that their Ministers will stay put. Neither Micheál Martin nor Leo Varadkar has the political capital or capacity, in their currently much smaller parliamentary parties, to consider significant changes. That presumes there are no voluntary departures. It will be the moment in the dance when one steps in and the other steps out, but the music and the movement continues seamlessly.
The Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, who will leave that job on December 15th, is unlikely to continue as Eurogroup president. He is, however, spoken of in relation to other posts.
As Eurogroup president he is chairperson of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) board of governors. Their CEO Klaus Regling is about to retire and Donohoe is mentioned in dispatches. It would be valuable soft power for Ireland, and a fit for the Minister’s capacity. The caveat is that he would have to leave Irish politics. Such a move for this or another role would reshape the reshuffle.
Martin is correct in saying his party has a future in government. Its newly approved aims make it indistinguishable from any other political party. What is at stake is, firstly, which of the two parties fares better in a battle for what is left of the centre. Martin has put Fianna Fáil back in contention versus Fine Gael, which once effortlessly had the upper hand. The loss of the taoiseach’s office and its limelight may reverse that dynamic. But that is the state of play now.
The year 2023 is a fallow one. There are no elections and no great prizes for party leaders. 2024 is different. The post of Ireland’s European commissioner is up, and that will be a Fianna Fáil job and it will be Martin’s to decide on. Then there are local and European elections.
If the leaders are still in harness at home, there is a final call about where to lead-on into a general election. It is all fascinating. Its relevance is less obvious.