Cliff Taylor: The timing could not be worse for a general election

Do you want a distracted Taoiseach when Ireland’s vital interests are on the line?

Minister for Foreign Affairs  Simon Coveney and British foreign secretary  Boris Johnson in Dublin  discussing  Brexit. The job of governing the country enters a strange limbo land during an election.  Photograph:  EPA/Aidan Crawley

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson in Dublin discussing Brexit. The job of governing the country enters a strange limbo land during an election. Photograph: EPA/Aidan Crawley

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There is rarely a good time to have a general election. But the plunge into a political crisis right now is particularly unfortunate. There is a lot of attention – correctly – on the Brussels summit of EU leaders in mid-December, and the need to have a Taoiseach participating who is in a strong political position.

But this is also wider. A general election campaign involves weeks of distraction followed by a period of policy and administrative nothingness as a new government is formed. At the precise moment the Brexit talks reach their first big crunch point, this is not where we want to be.

The rapid disintegration of the “new politics” arrangement which had supported the Government reflects badly on the two big parties. We find ourselves simultaneously surprised that it lasted so long and that it is now falling apart so quickly. But falling apart it is – it is hard to see this Government continuing much longer now. The question now is how to manage this.

So far party politics and finger-pointing have taken precedence over the national interest. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin have shown poor judgement by marching their troops up to the top of the hill. No doubt both felt that, politically, they had no alternative. But when it comes to the crunch, this move to the brink has made it look like party interests still trump those of the country.

Sort this out

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are now blaming each other, but it is the responsibility of both to sort this out. Both sides say they don’t want an election. This was repeated after a meeting on Friday afternoon between Varadkar and Martin. Now they need to prove it and find a way out of this.

The danger now is that the old tribal hatred between the two big parties will not allow a solution which is in the national interest. However the public mood is surely part of what pushed the two party leaders to say they would meet again on Saturday.And when they emerge from the Leinster House bubble over the weekend, TDs will get a blast of what ordinary voters think of this.

Many voters are no doubt appalled by the treatment of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe and the Byzantine obfuscations from the Department of Justice. In this regard the Fine Gael posturing that this is all Fianna Fáil’s fault is entirely unconvincing. But I doubt that means there is much support for holding a general election right now over the details of who knew what and when. On the contrary, I’d bet that voters are appalled by the prospect and will not have much time for the party political squabbling.

The timing for an election could hardly be worse.There will be key negotiations in the run up to the December summit, and then the summit itself. At issue is the key issue of the Irish Border. It may be that there is no deal between the EU and the UK over the size of Britain’s exit bill, meaning that the go-ahead cannot be given for the talks to progress – and thus the Border row will rumble on. But we can’t rely on this.

It is also possible that the Border issue may be the key item outstanding heading into the summit. Do you want a distracted, lame-duck Taoiseach representing Ireland’s interests if that happens?

There is also the possibility of some progress being made at the summit – but not enough – and key contacts over late December and into January to try to sort it out. Again we would need to be fully engaged in this.

Autopilot

It is hard to overstate just how much the system of governing the country goes on autopilot as an election is called – and then negotiations follow on the formation of a government.

Big decisions are put on hold – unless there is simply no alternative. Everyone is completely distracted by the hustings, the poll, the results, the negotiations and who is going to get the ministerial spoils. The job of governing the country enters a strange limbo land.

There may be no “good” time for a general election to happen. The precise path of the Brexit talks is impossible to predict. An election could be postponed until, say, February, and that could turn out to also be inconvenient.

But what we do know is that now is not the time. The run-up to the December summit requires a Taoiseach and Ministers fully engaged in the delicate lobbying, decision-making and communicating at a time when vital national interests are on the line.

Ireland wants Britain to come forward with a realistic plan on the Border,but can veto progress if this does not happen. We also wants the Brexit talks to progress to the next stage as we also need a trade deal done between Britain and the EU and a long transition period to allow all this to come into place. It is delicate and complex stuff.

As the remaining EU member most affected by Brexit, we need to at the centre of this, not with a Taoiseach who has only half an eye on the talks. And, sorry, please don’t try and tell us you can run a general election campaign and these delicate talks at the same time, and give sufficient attention to both. Or that a Taoiseach facing an uncertain election will carry as much clout around the table as would otherwise have been the case.

Border issue

Ireland has succeeded diplomatically in getting strong support from other EU countries on the Border issue. This support has been remarkably solid so far, but may be tested in the weeks ahead.

We desperately need full political attention on this, explaining relentlessly the Border issue and keeping the pressure up on the UK to make some kind of meaningful commitment. Now is not the time to drop this particularly sensitive ball.

Talk of a general election in mid-December is lunacy – and not only because of Christmas. The Government needs breathing space until at lest February. The two big party leaders needs to step up and stop an early election.

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