If Covid won’t be a political issue, the health service will

Political events set to produce a hard winter for this Coalition; and the decaying discourse

There are mounting difficulties in reaching agreement among the Coalition parties – in reality between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on one side and the Greens on the other – on the forthcoming climate action plan.

There are mounting difficulties in reaching agreement among the Coalition parties – in reality between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on one side and the Greens on the other – on the forthcoming climate action plan.

 

A topsy-turvy week in politics which gave us three signposts to the immediate political future and a warning about how we conduct ourselves.

Signpost one was Monday’s Covid announcement that restrictions would be lifted – call it the liberation of the nightclubs – despite the worsening situation with daily case numbers and hospitalisations. It points to a future in which Covid continues to be a daily issue to manage for the Government; instead of fading away, the pandemic is going to be here for a bit.

But it also shows that the Government has made a very important judgment about its management of the pandemic: that it can bear a consistently high level of cases for the next while. This is based on the expectation that the current wave, as Tánaiste Leo Varadkar put it in Brussels on Thursday, is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. Though Ministers do not put it in these terms, that also assumes a bearable level of deaths. I am not sure anyone wants to get into a debate on what exactly that level is, but that is assuredly what it amounts to.

They cribbed justifiably about other things, but they did not oppose the reopening

Though they did not spell it out as such, the major Opposition parties did not oppose the measure. They cribbed justifiably about other things, but they did not oppose the reopening. This suggests to me that Covid – although back as a daily issue in the news cycle – will not be an issue of political contention. It is an important distinction. There was a time in the spring when the opposition was veering towards embracing the zero-Covid option and thus creating a political dividing line on the pandemic. (Labour and the Social Democrats did so explicitly, though Sinn Féin was too cute to nail its colours to the mast.)

But as vaccination progressed, they retreated from that position. Now we are back with nearly everyone onside for the general direction of the Government’s policy on Covid. Paradoxically, this makes it more difficult for the Coalition to generate any political capital out of its management of the pandemic when it is successful – as we have seen – though it certainly doesn’t prevent it being blamed should things go wrong, as we have also seen.

But if Covid won’t be a political issue, the health service will. In fact, the main health issue in the coming months may not be Covid at all – but hospital overcrowding, pressures on emergency departments and waiting lists. This week, the INMO’s trolley watch figures crept back into the news, nudging towards the 500 mark. That’s the second signpost.

There is something approaching a grim foreboding in Government about the winter that lies ahead in the State’s hospitals. Covid will exacerbate the problems. Health service sources tell me elective procedures are already being cancelled. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is preparing to launch a waiting list initiative in the coming weeks. He had better hope it works, but with the numbers on the lists expected to reach a million in the coming months – and you will hear that number a lot, believe me – he will need a magic wand.

The third signpost in a report by Harry McGee earlier this week. He pointed to the difficulties in reaching agreement between the Coalition parties – in reality between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on one side and the Greens on the other – on the forthcoming climate action plan, due at the start of November. There will be many sticking points between the parties on the climate action plan, but none will be stickier than the agriculture sector’s reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases. The farmers, who see their livelihoods threatened, are getting ready for a fight and that will put rural Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs in a very difficult position.

Line ’em up together and the three signposts are all pointing to a very difficult autumn and winter for the coalition.

This week’s warning came from the murder of the British Conservative party MP David Amess, stabbed to death as he conducted his constituency clinic. While such an event seems horrifying but remote to us, we must face up to the fact that political debate conducted on social media has become vicious and personalised. Usually though not always behind the cloak of anonymity, people routinely dish out the most foul abuse, threats and insults at politicians – especially, of course, to women politicians.

It is increasingly commonplace to dismiss political opponents as not just wrong in their policy approach

Your timeline is not the country, but a coarse and ugly debate will beget a politics that is something like it – and the acrid tone of political debate on social media is gradually seeping into the national discourse. It is increasingly commonplace to dismiss political opponents as not just wrong in their policy approach, but personally morally compromised, selfish, wicked, mean and callous. It is not very hard to see where that road leads.

It leads to gangs of people gathering outside Leo Varadkar’s house, shouting homophobic insults. It leads to smart young people who are interested in politics and public service being scared off from running for election. It leads to women being chased out of politics.

The sharp polarisation of British and American politics – the two systems with which we are most familiar – should serve as an example of how not to manage our public and political debates. Being a politician in the US and UK is now to risk mortal danger.

Politicians in all parties here, especially those whose supporters are more prone to online misbehaviour than others, can seek to civilise debate now. They can say loudly that it is not okay to abuse, insult and vilify political opponents online. They can say that people of goodwill can differ on policy questions. They can say that their opponents may be wrong, but they are not bad people. Or we can just continue down the road. But let nobody say they don’t know where we all end up.

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