Why is the Government, in the midst of a substantial economic recovery, struggling to be re-elected? Because it can’t get its story straight. You win an election by controlling the narrative. But the Government parties have two completely different narratives and, because people aren’t stupid, most voters can see the contradictions very plainly.
The contradictions centre on a basic question: how much power does a government really have? The Government spent four of its five years answering this question one way: sorry about this, but there’s nothing we can do. For most of its period of office, it told citizens that it was essentially powerless. It was only obeying orders.
When Jean-Claude Trichet said a bomb would go off in Dublin if unsecured holders of Irish bank bonds were not paid in full, our leaders repented their sins of even contemplating the possibility of not using billions of public money to reward foolish private gamblers. When shareholders in the bankrupt Siteserv had the brass neck to demand €5 million of public money before they would co-operate with the sale, they got it. When Siteserv was sold to Denis O’Brien at a loss of €100 million to the taxpayers . . . well, sorry about this, but there’s nothing we can do about it.
We have no choice
The story the Government was telling from 2011 to 2014 was a tale that began with four words: not “once upon a time” but “we have no choice”.
We have no choice but to allow child poverty almost to double. We have no choice but to pay vast amounts to consultants to set up Irish Water. We have no choice but to cut respite care grants for carers at the end of their tether. We have no choice but to hunt down all those dodgy people with cancer who should not be entitled to medical cards. We have no choice but to take €136 million from things like mobility grants and personal assistance that allow people with disabilities to lead dignified lives. We have no choice but to allow homelessness to rise inexorably or to cut back-to-school allowances for struggling families. And so on.
What we were told over and over was that the Government didn’t want to do most of what it was doing. It broke their hearts. They deeply regretted the pain they were inflicting. The Government was merely bowing to the inevitable. There were big, bad forces out there that determined everything – the troika, the financial markets – and all we could do was appease them.
As a story, this one was highly problematic (there were, in fact, lots of choices available even within the very tight constraints). But at least it was consistent. If you were not on the receiving end of the worst of it, it even had a certain comforting fatalism: what can’t be cured must be endured.
Then, as the election came into view, the story completely changed. The puny little Government went into the phone box and emerged in gaudy tights and a cape. It now presents itself before us now as a paragon of potency. It fixed the economy. It created jobs. It used its superpowers to engineer the fastest growth in Europe. As a result, we are now so rich that the Government, if only we re-elect it, will use those same superpowers to cut taxes and deliver better public services at the same time.
There are two big problems with this story. One is that people know the big things that have changed for Ireland – the relative strength of the British and US economies, the fall in oil prices, favourable interest and exchange rates, Mario Draghi's shoring up of the euro at all costs – are entirely outside the control of any Irish government.
We can gauge exactly how much influence the Government really thinks it has over the international climate by Michael Noonan’s contributions to last week’s meetings of euro zone finance ministers on the fear of another global recession. Noonan’s contribution was literally non-existent – he didn’t bother to turn up, presumably because he feels there’s nothing the Government can say or do that would have the slightest influence on the European or global economies.
The other problem is that Government parties are presenting voters with a contradiction. On the one hand, the things it did for the bulk of its time in office were, by its own telling at the time, horrible, nasty, deeply unpleasant things that came wrapped in the language of powerlessness: inevitable, inescapable, unavoidable. On the other, the Government wants credit and gratitude for doing all of these things it told us it didn’t want to do.
Voters scratch their heads and say either you had choices or you didn’t. If you had no choice, fair enough, but don’t come looking for a pat on the back for merely doing what you had no power to avoid. And if you did have choices, how come you chose to kick children, people with disabilities, the carers?
If you had no power, you can claim no credit; if you did have power, you have to account for how unjustly you used it.