The Dáil resumes and faces into a turbulent period
The case for putting the national interest first
Members of the 32nd Dáil and its minority Government will face immense challenges in the coming months as they determine their responses to a “hard” Brexit, the collapse of powersharing in Northern Ireland, the protectionist policies of Donald Trump, and the implication of slowing domestic growth rates for wage demands and public services.
On past performance, this Government’s ability to take bold, ambitious decisions has been as restricted as the commitment by Opposition parties to a “new politics”. Confrontation and disagreement in parliament have led to a paucity of legislation and regular, stumbling accommodations to Opposition demands. That pattern of indecisive behaviour emerged in relatively good times. What will happen if a hugely disruptive economic storm becomes a reality?
Scoundrels have used the “national interest” as a catch-cry in the past. That does not damn its legitimacy. The economic and political challenges have rarely been more intense or complex. Elected representatives have a duty to consider larger, long-term issues facing the country, rather than their own short-term advantages. Political co-operation should, however, be a two-way street and the Government would be expected to consult widely in its efforts to plan a way forward.
The existence of a “confidence and supply” deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, providing for the survival of the minority Government under agreed circumstances, represents an in-built advantage. This arrangement should be broadened to encompass new economic and political challenges, particularly in relation to Brexit, the future of Northern Ireland and cross-Border trade.
When the Dáil resumes today, the nature of unfinished business will expose inherent difficulties in devising such co-operation. Because of timidity and delays, only eight Bills have passed into law since the Government was formed. The issue of water charges remains unresolved. A public health Bill, involving labelling, pricing and the segregation of alcohol in shops, inspired a backbench revolt and was withdrawn. A commitment to remove the “baptism barrier” in Catholic-run national schools will have to await another round of public consultations before its implementation. Extensive plans to deal with homelessness and social housing appear as difficult to implement as reform of the health services. And Government intervention on behalf of first-time buyers has served to push up house prices.
There will be no shortage of domestic issues for politicians to fight over during the coming Dáil session. Rather than devote all of their energies to confrontational politics, however, their constituents would be better served by a broader analysis and a more thoughtful response to extremely challenging circumstances.