Coalition needs to find common purpose and coherent narrative
Tough challenges ahead as coalition prepares budget and new plan for pandemic
Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Fire restaurant in Dublin’s city centre on Thursday, at the launch of the Stay and Spend scheme designed to boost tourism in the off-season. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
As the Government floundered – almost comically at times – over the relatively simple task of selecting a successor to Phil Hogan, the much more difficult challenges facing it over the coming weeks were stacking up. Its capacity to meet them successfully – based on the performance of its first two months – is questionable, to say the least of it.
Human factors haven’t helped. Too many key people are mentally and physically exhausted. Talk to people in and around government from all parties and civil servants from none and the most common sentiment you’ll hear is: “There’s been no let-up.”
And there won’t be. The chance for a quiet bedding-in period has now elapsed. Tough luck, fellas: as the old mob boss says in The Godfather: “This is the business we’ve chosen.” Look around the Dáil chamber – alright, look around the cavernous expanses of Convention Centre Dublin – and you’ll see plenty of people willing to do the job. Look at the Sinn Féin benches and you’ll see people itching – but also planning carefully and patiently – to do it. Frontline workers reading about tired politicians will say: you think you’re tired? So jog on there.
Before we contemplate the Herculean tasks of the coming political term, let us acknowledge one encouraging and important development for the Government: the return of the schools has proceeded more or less according to plan. Yes, there will be many outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools over the coming weeks. But the Return to the Promised Land has given rise to a song in the heart of many parents (I speak here as one) and demonstrated that the Government can manage at least some aspects of a return to something approaching normal.
Put it another way: if the reopening of the schools had been screwed up, I think it would have been a much bigger problem than the defenestration of Big Phil Hogan. Don’t get me wrong: the Oireachtas golf extravaganza and the fallout have been a political car crash and the failure to swiftly nominate a successor another self-inflicted wound. But people care about politics more when it affects their daily lives, and the schools affects most people.
Leaving Cert results
The next chapter in this is the Leaving Certificate results on Monday. Changes made to the adjustment of grades last week have been given a broad welcome, and though they will result in probably the best results ever – leading to a jump in entry requirements for college courses – the Department of Education seems to have learned from the mess in the UK.
It may, in other words, be possible for the Government to get through these key education tests and give the impression that it – in some respects anyway – knows what it’s doing. If so, progress.
Also at this point, some historical context: bear in mind that it is not unusual for coalition governments to have rocky starts. In the early few months of Bertie Ahern’s first coalition government with the Progressive Democrats in 1997, it was widely predicted that it would not last the autumn. Ray Burke resigned. Tribunals were set up. The polite wing of the PDs looked on aghast. The government’s obituaries were prepared. Six months later, it had passed a giveaway budget, won a presidential election, negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and was presiding over a breathtaking economic boom which would return it to power for another two terms.
In the summer of 2016, having cobbled together his minority coalition with Independents – facilitated by the confidence-and-supply agreement with Fianna Fáil – Enda Kenny saw it wobble precariously over abortion, the Apple tax judgment and the general inability of the Independents and Fine Gaelers to get on together. But they learned how; the government lasted.
The lesson from all this, I think, is that just because it has had a ropey start doesn’t mean the Government is inevitably doomed. In fact, governments tend not to fall; it is self-evidently rarely in their interests to collapse and face the voters. But unless the current coalition discovers a better way of doing things – and, crucially, of doing them with a common purpose and coherent narrative – it’s hard to see it working. And if the coalition parties can’t govern effectively, there isn’t much point in it, is there?
The coming weeks will tell a lot. A new plan for the management of the pandemic is being prepared in government and will be published in a fortnight or so. It will herald not just the reopening of the pubs, but a new and more collaborative way or working between Ministers and public-health experts. The Government needs to design, package and communicate this a lot more effectively than it has done with the piecemeal measures of recent weeks, which have aroused confusion, opposition and – at times – ridicule. It also needs to overcome the obvious divisions in its own ranks over the pace of opening up.
This is the Government’s chance to show it can take over from the last administration in managing the pandemic – and the public thinks nothing is more important – effectively. Fluffing it would be a catastrophe.
A few weeks later the Government must formulate and pass a budget, likely to be combined with the plan for economic recovery. This will require not just internal wrangling in the coalition (the Greens, you may be sure, will drive a hard bargain) but difficult choices about the allocation of resources in a society and economy reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Though much greater than ever before due to heroic levels of borrowing, the Government’s resources are necessarily finite. The great Covid bailout won’t go on forever.
The choices are inevitable: what is not is inevitable is the Government’s capacity to explain and justify them to a querulous country. The jury’s out. Tough times ahead.