Coalition must stand its ground or face freefall
Opinion: Alan Kelly has done a good job in bringing certainty to the water charges issue – other Ministers need to do the same
The priority for the Government parties, now that they have finally produced their solution to the water controversy, is to stop retreating in the face of protest and stand their ground against political opponents inside and outside the Dáil.
Since the beginning of the year the Coalition has been unnerved by one controversy after another. The scent of blood has encouraged an assault from all quarters that threatened to push it into the kind of freefall that overwhelmed the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition. While some basic mistakes were made in handling water issue, the reason the Government lost control so completely was it conveyed an impression of weakness at every stage in the controversy. This was in stark contrast to the impression of competence allied to toughness it displayed during its first three years in office.
One Fine Gael TD remarked during the week that he got far more grief during the protests over the household charge in 2012 than he got over water, but people ultimately accepted the property tax because the Government never gave any sign of backing down. “What backbenchers can’t live with is being told to go out and defend a policy only to see Ministers backing down when the protests get too hot. We have had to endure this on a few issues over the past year but we won’t tolerate it again,” he added.
The irony is that the wobbles began to develop just as the economic turnaround began to take hold and the tough decisions taken during the first three years of the Coalition’s term began to bear fruit.
Fine Gael and Labour should have been able to capitalise on the economic recovery to provide a smooth run-in to the general election in around 12 months’ time but, at this stage, the best they can hope for is to minimise the damage the errors of the past year have done to their electoral prospects.
Alan Kelly, the new Minister for the Environment, has done a good job in bringing certainty to the water charges issue and other Ministers will need to do the same in their areas of responsibility. Mind you it is not only the Government parties that have suffered water damage. The Opposition parties and Independents have also discovered the pitfalls of a complex issue whose contours keep changing. Sinn Féin did a spectacular U-turn, with party leader Gerry Adams and most of his TDs initially saying they would pay the charges and then changing their minds when they calculated that the popular mood was running the other way.
It is common enough for Governments to do U-turns in the face of protest, but for an Opposition party to change its mind in such a short time is something quite unusual.
The Sinn Féin turnaround was prompted by the spectacle of the hard left appearing to outflank it, with TDs such as Paul Murphy, Ruth Coppinger and Richard Boyd Barrett saying they would not pay under any circumstances.
Emboldened by their success, the Trotskyites went too far last weekend with the disgraceful assault on Tánaiste Joan Burton in Jobstown and the encouragement of mob rule, which left her trapped in her car for more than two hours.
It was all orchestrated by newly elected TD Paul Murphy, who maintained afterwards that what had happened was a peaceful protest, despite the evidence of video footage which clearly showed Burton being struck in the face with an object before being trapped in her car and subjected to deeply unpleasant abuse.
Burton sought to play down the incident at the time, but its threatening quality was obvious for all to see on the television screens. Traumatic and all as the incident must have been for her, it was the first break the Coalition got since the beginning of the controversy.
Apart from its sheer nastiness, the incident at Jobstown focused attention on the lack of any coherent alternative policies being offered by those involved in encouraging protest.
When Wicklow Independent Stephen Donnelly intervened in the Dáil on Thursday in support of Paul Murphy, the Tánaiste could not resist remarking: “This is the alliance of the Tea Party and Trotskyist. This is a new political party in Ireland.”
So much of what passes for Opposition in the Dáil simply amounts to rejection of necessary taxation measures coupled with demands for unlimited extra spending on socially desirable objectives. It is also no accident that the variety of parties and individuals from far left to far right who, at the height of the crisis, advocated policies such as defaulting on debt and allowing banks collapse are to the forefront in opposing everything designed to get the economy back on an even keel.
The people who would have suffered most if there had been a financial collapse are those who depend on the State for welfare payments, pensions or salaries, but that is not something that bothered those who are now doing everything they can to make Ireland ungovernable.
There is clearly a constituency for crude anti-establishment politics in Ireland, just as there is across Europe where parties such as Ukip and the National Front in France are thriving. Over the next 12 months the Coalition parties will need to be far more assertive and coherent in explaining their policies to the electorate if they want voters to turn away from the temptations being offered by the peddlers of protest.