Summer storms for Government
What with growing confusion over the admissibility of evidence at the banking inquiry and technical accounting difficulties at Irish Water, you would be forgiven for thinking that political activity in Ireland is at full stretch. Not so. Members of the Dáil, the Seanad and the Cabinet have already closed their office doors and departed on extended holiday breaks. Some have remained to deal with official business but, with an election in the offing, their main focus over the coming months will be on constituency matters.
Governments have always found relief in long summer holidays when ministers recovered from bruising Dáil exchanges and opposition parties were denied a vital publicity platform. After years of opposition party complaints about this anti-parliamentary practice, however, the length of the holiday period has been cut from twelve to eight weeks. It is a useful reform and redresses, to a small extent, the excessive control exercised by the Executive. This shortened, low-activity period is also less likely to dull public memory.
A keenly anticipated quiet period for Ministers developed into a full-blown storm when Eurostat rejected an accounting wheeze that would have removed the cost of Irish Water from the State’s balance sheet. The ruling was not unexpected, given the number of Government interventions when it attempted to assuage public resistance. But it was politically unwelcome. Months earlier, departmental projections had been amended and Michael Noonan reassured voters he would still allocate between €1.2 bilion and €1.5 billion in additional spending and tax cuts in the October budget. It didn’t seem to count. Campaigners redoubled their demands for abolition of the charge and a scrapping of Irish Water. For Sinn Féin, which now accepts that such services must be modernised and paid for, the answer was to establish a different utility. Others declined to say how services might be funded. But all agreed it was a hot election topic and would damage the Government’s image on economic management.
A lack of such management was what interested Oireachtas members dealing with the banking collapse. The politicians and bankers they interviewed admitted to errors of judgment and offered limited apologies for damaging outcomes, but the real fault lay elsewhere. The committee’s own competence became an issue when members disagreed on whether evidence from former chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank David Drumm should be accepted and the Director of Public Prosecutions intervened. Elsewhere, the Government appeared determined to emulate its predecessors by ignoring advice from the Central Bank and its Fiscal Advisory Council on sound management. In the jaws of an election, as economic growth soared, the political imperative was to spend, rather than save.