Coalition's survival depends on getting the schools open this autumn

If it fails it establishes a narrative of failure, and the public will lose confidence in its ability to govern

If the Government can get children back to school in relatively normal circumstances it will communicate a degree of competence and coherence that will impress people. Photograph: Getty Images

If the Government can get children back to school in relatively normal circumstances it will communicate a degree of competence and coherence that will impress people. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The simplest and most urgent requirement by the public of any government is that it should display a basic competence in running the country as it is.

Of course there are many people who want to see great changes in many aspects of political life and public provision – from Sinn Féin’s push for a united Ireland, to the left’s demand for State intervention in markets of all kinds, to the Greens’ urgent campaign for climate action that changes our modus vivendi to a more environmentally-sustainable model.

But they also have the basic requirement that the government should run the country with a degree of competence – make the trains run on time and all that.

The opening weeks of this administration were stuttering and error-prone to be kind about it. It has now passed a significant milestone in agreeing and publishing a stimulus plan which will hose the economy with a tsunami of borrowed cash in a bid to keep businesses alive until the pandemic passes – a process and presentation which was by some distance the most competent thing the coalition has achieved so far.

Though as one Government insider reflected, that’s not exactly setting the bar very high. Still, Thursday was a good day, the best day yet for the coalition.

But the biggest test of the coalition’s ability to manage the tasks of government lies ahead of it in the next few weeks: can it reopen schools as pretty much normal?

I think it is impossible to overestimate the political importance for the Government that children go back to school, five days a week, in something as close as possible to a normal teaching and learning environment at the end of August.

This is view shared across the administration, right up to its apex. Everything so far is just noise, one senior person in Government Buildings tells me. But this is not. Micheál Martin has been saying this to his officials and to his new Minister for Education since the Government was formed.

Most people are not that interested in politics most of the time. They don’t notice who is elected leas ceann comhairle and whether it was a shock or not. It certainly wouldn’t come as a shock to most people because they couldn’t care less who the leas ceann comhairle is, or what she does.

Insights

Many people might like to have a local man or woman in government (because they think it will benefit their locality, and therefore themselves) but beyond that they don’t much care who Ministers and Junior Ministers are, or if they are sacked.

Even in Ireland, where people follow politics more closely than in many places, one of the greatest insights a politician can have is to realise how little attention people are paying to them most of the time.

But people do sit up and notice politics when it affects their lives. They pay attention to the budget. They paid attention to the lockdown announcements.

They’ve been tuning into news programmes and reading news reports in greater numbers than ever before in recent months because they know that the decisions made and announced by politicians about the pandemic affect them in their daily lives.

So they will be closely watching what the politicians do about reopening schools.

If the Government can get children back to school in relatively normal circumstances it will communicate a degree of competence and coherence that will impress people – in the way that people were impressed by the handling of the first phase of the pandemic by the previous government.

People know it’s not easy, that changes are required, and that nervous stakeholders must be brought on board. Yet they expect the Government to achieve that.

If it can be delivered then the coalition heads into the autumn on a solid foundation and with – vital, this – a sense of forward momentum.

But if the Government fails, the opposite happens. I think lots of people will switch off and give up on the Government, and as they try to juggle work, home, school and home-schooling they will wonder why the pubs could open but not the schools.

It would, I suspect, be a devastating political blow from which the coalition would find it extremely difficult to recover.

Every minor controversy or mishap, every piece of bad economic news – and there will be plenty of that – would be considered in the light of this failure. It establishes for the autumn a narrative of failure: the coalition can’t do anything right.

Complex

Can it be done? It’s undoubtedly complex, and will be expensive. But it is hardly impossible. The GAA has devised a system – along with an accompanying app – whereby every child is individually checked and registered for every match and training session.

Lots of people think it would be better to let the GAA run the country altogether, but if this is not on the cards for now at least the Government could learn from how the association has designed and managed the return to play for its half a million members.

The co-operation of the teachers’ unions will be needed, but as one senior figure pointed out they might be more inclined to co-operate if they understood that they, rather than the Government, would be blamed if the schools don’t return.

There will be attempts to convey this message as delicately as possible, but the smarter union leaders know it already, and are thinking about their price. Money will not be a problem, I am repeatedly assured.

The business of government is multifarious and unrelenting. But sometimes the political fate of an administration can hinge on a single issue or event.

This may well be one of those times.

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