Covid-19 not the only threat to survival of Government

Coalition also facing internal pressures which could have destabilising impact

The biggest and most obvious challenge to the Government is how it deals with the Covid pandemic and the related issue of the vaccine rollout. Photograph: Jean-Christophe Guillaume/Getty Images

The biggest and most obvious challenge to the Government is how it deals with the Covid pandemic and the related issue of the vaccine rollout. Photograph: Jean-Christophe Guillaume/Getty Images

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

The Coalition’s prospects of surviving for anything like its full term, with a smooth handover of the Taoiseach’s office in December of next year, will hinge on how it handles an array of challenges in the coming months. Any one of them has the capacity to undermine public confidence in its ability to govern.

The Government seems paralysed in the face of growing discontent, unwilling to relax the rules in a systematic fashion but also unwilling to enforce them too strictly

The biggest and most obvious challenge is how it deals with the Covid pandemic and the related issue of the vaccine rollout. There is an increasingly obvious mood of public weariness and frustration with the level of restrictions, many of which have now been in place for a year.

Most people are still obeying the instruction to wear face masks in crowded places and restricting travel to within 5km of their homes but in recent weeks it is clear that many have started to gather in outdoor locations and the injunction not to visit other homes is beginning to fray.

The Government seems paralysed in the face of growing discontent, unwilling to relax the rules in a systematic fashion but also unwilling to enforce them too strictly for fear of provoking a dangerous backlash. Opening primary schools was a crucial step but key decisions on what, if any, further relaxation should take place after Easter will have to be taken next week.

The problem is that some of the most onerous restrictions don’t appear to make much sense. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell, has described the limiting of funeral attendances to just 10 people as “harsh and unfair”. While there is an obvious need to curtail the traditional Irish custom of gathering at funerals in large numbers, limiting the numbers to 10 has prevented family members from paying their respects to deceased relatives and has caused deep anguish.

Religious services

There is also the question about why Ireland appears to be the only country in the European Union to have a complete ban on attendance at religious services. The fact that Taoiseach Micheál Martin could express surprise that the Catholic bishops asked people to lobby their TDs for a change in the rules was the real surprise.

Deservedly or not, the Government will be blamed if a substantial proportion of the population is not vaccinated by the summer

While the Government is perfectly right to be cautious, given the experience of relaxing rules at Christmas, it risks losing control of the battle against Covid if it attempts to keep severe restrictions in place for longer than most people believe reasonable. The problem is there is no obvious right or wrong answer about which restrictions should be eased and when but it would help if the public was presented with clear evidence about where Covid infections take place and where they don’t.

One positive for the Government is that very few people have supported the fringe groups openly challenging the restrictions. The protests on St Patrick’s Day were tiny and there is no public support for a confrontational approach.

Public frustration has been compounded by the slowness of the vaccine rollout. While this is largely out of the Government’s hands, as it is down to the supply available from the EU, the decision to suspend the AstraZeneca jab last weekend was questionable. The progress of the vaccination programme for the next three months will be crucial. Deservedly or not, the Government will be blamed if a substantial proportion of the population is not vaccinated by the summer.

Internal pressures

As well as facing the unprecedented pressure of dealing with the pandemic, the Coalition is also facing internal political pressures which could have a seriously destabilising impact on its ability to govern. The Garda investigation into the leaking of a confidential document by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar in 2019 has the capacity to cause a convulsion in Fine Gael. While nobody in the party, or in the wider Coalition, believes that Varadkar did anything seriously wrong in leaking the document to try and win the support of doctors for a national pay deal, a decision to prosecute would be political dynamite.

Given the severe way Varadkar dealt with party colleagues who attended the golf dinner in Clifden last summer believing it was within the Covid rules, he will be in deep trouble if the Director of Public Prosecutions decides a prosecution is warranted in his case. A decision one way or the other is expected by June.

The Taoiseach is facing his own political travails in the months ahead. There is enormous discontent at all levels in Fianna Fáil at the party’s consistently poor opinion-poll results and some members of the parliamentary party are now openly critical of their leader.

One school of thought in the party is that as Martin will obviously not lead them into the next election the time to replace him with a new leader is while Fianna Fáil holds the Taoiseach’s office. The view, at present still a minority one, is that a new leader will need to have served as Taoiseach to have the required standing to put in an effective performance in the next election.

The political challenges facing both Coalition leaders in the months ahead will be compounded if they are unable to ease the lockdown for the summer holidays. They desperately need a successful vaccine rollout with no further serious bumps along the way.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.