Looking towards a fresh start

 

A GENERAL election will be held in a matter of months and offers the prospect of new policies and a fresh beginning. The present Government has been eking out its existence in the hope that economic and political tides may turn in its favour. That hasn’t happened. Financial mistakes and misinformation have exasperated the public and divided the Coalition parties. They are stumbling to an election that, for the Opposition parties, cannot come soon enough.

Change is no longer a political option – it has become a necessity. The financial landscape is being altered because of demands made by the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank in return for an € 85 billion loan facility. But the political structures that facilitated the economic crash remain largely unaffected. So do wasteful administrative practices. These weaknesses should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

There has been little appetite for change at a fundamental political level. If returned to power, Fine Gael is committed to holding a referendum to abolish the Seanad; reducing the number of TDs; and increasing the number of Dáil sitting days. The Labour Party favours a full-time legislature, rather than the present, part-time arrangement. These modest proposals would leave the multi-seat system of proportional representation that encourages party in-fighting and rewards parochialism, unchanged. Because reform will affect the interests of political parties, it is important that public debate on the options available should be refereed by outside interests.

Radical reform will require a constitutional referendum. If it is decided to go down that route, consideration should be given to rebalancing the overwhelming power of the executive in relation to parliament. Other issues of importance involve the traditional stuffing of State boards with party henchmen and the appointment of judges. All such appointments should require a public vetting system by the members of the Oireachtas with, as in the United States, the possibility that candidates may be rejected.

From the beginning of the year, there has been a sense of things falling apart. Willie O’Dea was forced to resign as minister for defence in February because of an inaccurate sworn affidavit involving a political opponent. Martin Cullen resigned as minister for arts, sport and tourism shortly afterwards for health reasons. Trevor Sargent resigned as a minister of state because he had intervened improperly in a criminal case. As support for the Government declined and the economic situation worsened, some Fianna Fáil backbenchers adopted independent positions. Others, with Brian Cowen’s leadership in their sights, staged a mini-revolt over Green Party stag-hunting and greyhound legislation.

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The situation was equally fraught in Fine Gael. The findings of an opinion poll that showed the Labour Party leading all others and Eamon Gilmore favoured as an alternative taoiseach brought a challenge to the leadership of Enda Kenny. A majority of the front bench favoured Richard Bruton as his successor. But Mr Kenny rustled up backbench support and survived to appoint a new front bench in a divided party.

If politicians in this State were under pressure, it was slight compared to that experienced by DUP leader Peter Robinson in Northern Ireland. The year opened with the revelation that his wife Iris had been conducting an affair with a young man and had helped to establish him in business. Mr Robinson’s own property dealings came under scrutiny. With the support of Ian Paisley, however, he weathered the storm and continued in the role of First Minister.

Under pressure from the Irish and British governments and Sinn Féin, Mr Robinson eventually agreed to the transfer of justice and policing powers, as the remaining element of the devolution process. It was a risky decision, taken within months of the pending Westminster elections. In the event, the stance of the DUP was vindicated when opponents of the transfer of powers, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice party, were soundly beaten at the polls.

The DUP and Sinn Féin remain firmly in control of the Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly. As the incoming British government announced massive spending cuts, Mr Robinson and Martin McGuinness found common cause in minimising the effect of the cutbacks on their Northern constituents. Their efforts were given impetus by the destructive activities of dissident republicans. These groups continued to organise and engage in violent activities in opposition to the peace process.

As the year drew to a close, there were tentative signs of growth in the Republic’s economy but the scourge of high unemployment remained. Fine Gael moved back into a dominant political position. Support that had earlier left Fianna Fáil for the Labour Party transferred its allegiance to Sinn Féin. In this state of flux, with competition growing between Opposition parties, the Government published a four-year plan and introduced what has been regarded as an unfair budget that affected low-paid workers and the unemployed disproportionately. There is still no certainty about the eventual cost of the banking collapse. All the public knows is that it will pay the bill and that the Government misled it concerning the EU-IMF bailout. That has been sufficient to cause further erosion in Fianna Fáil support and for two senior Ministers to announce their retirement.

Brian Cowen will lead on. The general election may be deferred until March. But the outlook for the Government parties is so bleak that only a miracle can save them from the anger of the electorate.