Events, dear boy, events

 

What a difference a week makes. Armed with a handsome majority in the general election only four months ago, the new Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats Coalition is showing all of the signs of being less stable than the minority government which preceded it. It may be internally cohesive. But, those fateful "events, dear boy, events" - which Harold Macmillan feared most because they could sink governments - are happening at a rate which must be alarming the Taoiseach and the Government.

The week began with the accidental release and publication of a confidential memorandum to Government showing that €900 million in cutbacks in existing services were being contemplated for next year to create a war chest for increases in Social Welfare and other priorities. Taxes would have to rise slowly and the widening of tax bands would have to be funded by increases in excise duties on the old reliables.

What was most damaging about the memorandum was not the devil in the detail, however, but the fact that it was in gestation before the ink was dry on the ballot papers in May. The Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, entered enough caveats into the election campaign to preclude a conviction on a charge of lying before a court of law. But, both he and the Government have learnt during the week that the court of public opinion requires a lower standard of proof.

A second controversy was unleashed on a stunned and unsuspecting public on Tuesday when the Minister for Education, Mr Dempsey, announced that third level fees may be reintroduced for those who can afford to pay them. In an interview with The Irish Times, he said that he could give no assurance to parents and to students that college fees, abolished in 1994, would not be returning at some stage.

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There was more bad news on Wednesday when Mr McCreevy said that tax revenues for the year would be further below target than expected following quite disappointing figures for July and August. "Going forward, it is quite likely that the budgetary position is going to be even more difficult than the budgetary position outlined in the memorandum", he stated. Mr McCreevy's hope for a budget surplus at the end of the year is now under question.

The Government was still on the defensive on Thursday when the Taoiseach explained that Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats did not "seek to mislead" voters about the state of the finances during the election. "The world and its mother and brother knew what the figures were", Mr Ahern said.

The biggest event, of Macmillan proportions, landed on the Government's desk on Thursday afternoon when the second interim report of the Flood Tribunal landed on the Taoiseach's desk. It was simple and stark in its language and its findings.

Mr Ray Burke, the man Mr Ahern appointed as Minister for Foreign Affairs in his first Government in 1997, was corrupt. And then another blast from the past landed four square in the middle of the referendum on the Nice Treaty. The tribunal was also satisfied that Mr P. J. Mara, Fianna Fáil's director of elections, "failed to co-operate" with the inquiry. He resigned yesterday to prevent any further embarrassment to the Government but, more realistically, because his greatest quote about Mr Charles Haughey was likely to come back to haunt him. There could be "no more nibbling at my leader's bum".

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A week is a long time in politics and it is not over yet. The findings of today's Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll, conducted last Monday and Tuesday, bring bad news on all counts for the Government. The level of satisfaction with the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat Coalition has dropped by 25 percentage points to 36 per cent since May. Fianna Fáil's support has fallen by seven and a half points to 34 per cent since the general election.

But the starkest finding of the poll is that Mr Ahern's popularity rating has dropped by 25 percentage points since May to 51 per cent. That is the lowest level not just since he became Taoiseach in 1997 but since he assumed the leadership of Fianna Fáil in 1994. By the same token, it must be noted that Mr Kenny's rating as leader of Fine Gael is 28 per cent, three points lower than his predecessor, Mr Noonan.

The most damaging finding for the Taoiseach and the Government is that the result of the Nice Treaty referendum hangs in the balance. Some 37 per cent will vote Yes (compared to 52 per cent in the early stages of the campaign on Nice I); 25 per cent will vote No; 32 per cent are undecided; and 7 per cent will not vote. And the correlation between voters who are dissatisfied with the Government and inclined to vote No to Nice is strong.

The Taoiseach is losing the Teflon touch. The Government's satisfaction rating is at its lowest ebb. Only 49 per cent of Fianna Fáil supporters are voting Yes to the Nice Treaty; 31 per cent are undecided. The second Nice referendum could be won or lost at this stage. The Taoiseach will formally launch Fianna Fáil's Nice campaign tomorrow. He has all the evidence he needs now to convince the party that they must treat the Nice referendum like a general election campaign. The mobilisation he called for has not happened. The poll sends a dire warning that Ireland's future interests in Europe could be dictated by domestic events.