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Benefits of political stability may now trump desire for change

Brexit fiasco in the United Kingdom has put a serious dent in the notion that radical change is always for the best

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's new Cabinet announced on Saturday. Photograph: Government Information Services

A few months ago the gossip in political circles was that the swapping of the Taoiseach’s office would provide an opportunity for big changes of personnel around the Cabinet table to give the Coalition an opportunity to present a new image to the public for the second half of its term.

In the event, aside from Leo Varadkar’s return to the Taoisaech’s office and Micheál Martin’s move to the Department of Foreign Affairs, the cabinet reshuffle last weekend was so minimal it hardly deserved to be called a reshuffle at all.

Simon Coveney’s move to Enterprise was necessitated by the fact that Martin opted for Foreign Affairs and, apart from the expected juggling of posts at Finance, the only other change of note was the temporary assignment of the Department of Justice to Simon Harris while the incumbent Helen McEntee is on maternity leave.

One explanation for the decision of Varadkar and Martin to dodge significant changes is that they needed to avoid making dangerous enemies in their respective parties as would inevitably have arisen if they dropped prominent figures. They both took the easy option of leaving well enough alone.


However, another and arguably more important factor has come into play since the summer speculation about the need for a new image. There has been a subtle shift in the political atmosphere to suggest the benefits of political stability may just trump the desire for change.

One reason for this is that the seemingly irresistible rise of Sinn Féin has taken a knock from the damage to the party’s image generated by the publicity surrounding former councillor Jonathan Dowdell’s involvement with organised crime in Dublin.

This may or may not be a temporary phenomenon but it has put party leader Mary Lou McDonald on the defensive. After years of generally soft and even effusive media coverage the Dowdall affair, and the questions raised by Shane Ross’s biography of her, has put her in the unaccustomed position of having questions to answer.

McDonald’s sour response to Varadkar’s elevation to the Taoisaech’s office in the Dáil debate on his nomination last weekend confirmed the impression of a leader for whom everything in the garden is not looking as rosy as it was a few months ago.

Another element in the equation may well be that our neighbours in the United Kingdom have put a serious dent in the mantra that change is always for the best. The Brexit disaster arose from the sloppy notion that the way to fix the country’s problems was through a dramatic change of direction.

Brexit reached its logical conclusion with the rise and fall of Boris Johnson’s incompetent administration and the disaster of Liz Truss’s 44 days in office. Since the beginning of the year UK politics has been convulsed by two leadership coups, three prime ministers, four chancellors of the exchequer and more than 30 exits from the cabinet.

While the emergence of Rishi Sunak has finally brought some political stability, the country is still reeling from one economic disaster to the next with the current wave of strikes the latest manifestation of “broken Britain”.

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There is no sign that the government, opposition or media is prepared to accept the reality that the departure from the EU, the single market and customs union is at the root of the problem.

One of the most effective rebuttals of Sinn Féin in recent months was delivered by Simon Harris in a Prime Time interview when he compared the policies being advocated by McDonald to the hare-brained actions of Liz Truss.

Irish voters might not care too much about Sinn Féin’s links with the IRA but the notion that the party is committed to policies that could wreck the economy may be a louder wake-up call.

The benefits provided by political stability in this country have shown themselves in the way the parties of Government have handled Brexit, the Covid emergency, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost of living crisis. However, eaten bread is soon forgotten and they will have to show similar levels of commitment and boldness to deal with the apparently intractable housing crisis.

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This issue has bedevilled Fine Gael for the past decade as the party dealt with the fall-out from the financial crisis. While it did remarkably well to create the conditions for sustained economic growth that turned a country with chronic unemployment into one that has full employment, housing has been the blight on that record.

In his Dáil speech on becoming Taoiseach, Varadkar recognised the scale of the problem.

“We must do whatever it takes to solve this social crisis and reverse the trend of rising homelessness and falling home ownership. We must apply the same spirit of determination, action and immediacy that we saw during the pandemic to this great challenge of today.”

It was a bold declaration and one on which he and his Government will ultimately be judged. Such a deep-rooted problem is not going to be fixed in the next two years but a determined effort to tackle the problem could change the political narrative from a choice of stability versus change to one of competence versus chaos.