A mixed week that tells us some important things about the present and future of Irish politics: two bits of good news for the Government and for the country, one bit of bad news for the Government (and maybe the country), and an evening of pullen’n’draggen in the Dáil which sheds some light on the state of play between Government and Opposition right now.
The first bit of good news was a very big bit of good news. When the exchequer returns for November landed on Tuesday afternoon, the sigh of relief reverberated up and down Merrion Street with a mighty whoosh. Corporation tax receipts were up, blasting through the predictions and ending up not just setting a record of €6.3 billion in a single month, but beating last year’s record by 27 per cent.
What a turnaround. Since the summer, when corporation tax receipts started to stutter, the growing, gnawing fear in Government had been that the party was over – that the great gushing river of revenue from a small number of pharma and tech multinationals was slowing, perhaps to a trickle. That the buoyant budgetary situation that has enabled the Coalition to throw money at problems while also putting money aside for the future was changing. Were that to happen, it would mean a very different sort of future for the Coalition and for the country. The sign would have been a further undershoot on corporation tax revenues in November, the most important month. But the opposite happened. Party on.
The second piece of good news came when the OECD – the international organisation that, among other things, helps countries compare themselves with each other – reported that Irish teenagers are the second best in the world at reading, and among the top countries at maths and sciences, coming in at 11th and 12th place. The rankings represent considerable improvements since the last survey and demonstrate that teenagers are not spending absolutely all their time turning their brains into mush on TikTok (just most of it).
The survey shows that the Irish education system is certainly not the wasteland of prefabs and teacher shortages that you might think. It’s actually flourishing in important respects
There are caveats, of course. Some of the Irish improvement in the rankings came because the performance of other countries deteriorated; our kids may have weathered the pandemic better than others. We appear to have fewer low-achievers (good) but also fewer high-achievers (not good). Teachers and schools obviously deserve a lot of credit; but so do the kids themselves. There are obviously all sorts of problems in education, which tend to be well-ventilated in the media. But the survey shows that the Irish education system is certainly not the wasteland of prefabs and teacher shortages that you might think. It’s actually flourishing in important respects.
Also flourishing, it appears, are the career prospects of Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath. Bloomberg reported that Donohoe was having “preliminary conversations” in Washington last week about the possibility of taking over as head of the International Monetary Fund next year. It’s not yet clear if there will be a vacancy – but there might be. And Donohoe – highly regarded in both the US and Brussels – is in a strong position to make a bid for the job. Donohoe parried with the old “I’m fully focused on my job” wheeze when asked about it, but certainly his colleague McGrath could hardly have been more complimentary about his suitability for the post when asked about it. Wouldn’t the IMF be lucky to have him, was the general vibe. McGrath was also coy about his own intentions when Fianna Fáil has to decide who to send to Brussels as European Commissioner next summer. Fully focused on the job, etc.
Come off it, lads. There are words you could use if you wanted to rule it out: “I am not a candidate and I will not accept the role if offered it.”
Neither chose to employ those words. So you can take it that the Government faces the possibility of losing its two most able ministers next year. That would deprive the Coalition not just of its axis of political stability but also its strongest advocates of fiscal prudence just at the time that it is nearing the end of its life, and with an election bearing down upon it.
And while there is nothing that the public finds quite so uninteresting as speculation about jobs for politicians, the outcome of all this will have a direct bearing on everyone. Because it’ll be a different budget next year if the two lads are gone, that’s for sure. Wait till the fiscal council sees that one.
Sinn Féiners certainly did not look or sound as if they were enjoying this. It confirmed that law and order is not comfortable territory for the party, and because law and order will be an important issue in the next election, that could matter
Finally, to the rumble in the Dáil. The motion of no confidence in Helen McEntee, put down by Sinn Féin in the wake of the Dublin riots, gave Fine Gaelers their best Dáil outing in a long time. Sometimes motions of no confidence do this – they end up galvanising the Government. Deputy after deputy got up and lacerated Sinn Féin with an enthusiasm that has been signally lacking in the usual Dáil encounters. Sinn Féin’s links to the IRA, its support of the Provos’ campaign that took many garda lives, those embarrassing links to gangland spear-carrier Jonathan Dowdall – all were discussed with detail and relish.
Sinn Féin deputies – including the leader – sat with glum uninterest for much of the proceedings. Reading the body language and facial expressions of TDs in the chamber is a school of analysis that is fraught with risk, to put it mildly. But Sinn Féiners certainly did not look or sound as if they were enjoying this. It confirmed that law and order is not comfortable territory for the party, and because law and order will be an important issue in the next election, that could matter.
And let us not forget the result – a 20-vote majority, one higher than the last confidence motion. The Government will be secure until it decides otherwise.