Noonan kept his head when things looked their worst


The scale of the Government’s achievement in winning a meaningful deal on the promissory notes should steady nerves in the Coalition after a wobbly few weeks and today’s poor opinion poll results.

The outcome of the negotiations with the European Central Bank points up the importance of keeping the political focus on the long game, and ignoring the relentless outrage and indignation generated by the Opposition and fanned by the media.

The manner in which the elder statesman of the Government, Michael Noonan, has been acclaimed in recent days should be a lesson to his colleagues in the Coalition, Ministers and backbenchers alike about the importance of holding their nerve when things are looking their worst.

Noonan, who will be 70 in three months, has defied the cliché that all political careers end in failure. A successful minister for justice in the 1980s, his reputation was most unfairly tarnished during his period as minister for health in the 1990s, and his short period as leader of Fine Gael ended in political disaster.

After all that he made a return to the front rank of politics after the abortive heave against his old rival Enda Kenny in the summer of 2010 and he hasn’t looked back since. He kept his head when others appeared to be losing theirs during the final tense negotiations with the ECB.

The Coalition’s credibility as well as the country’s vital national interest was on the line. The fact that it all came good in the end should boost morale in both Government parties at a difficult time. An impressive aspect of the drama of the final 24 hours before the deal was done was the fact that the Government had clearly prepared for a range of contingencies.

The complex legislation on the liquidation of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation had been drafted some time ago and was ready to go at a moment’s notice.

The leak from the ECB that triggered the all-night debate in the Oireachtas was probably fortuitous as it necessitated quick decision-making. The fact that the Irish side was ready to move was vital.

The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showing Fianna Fáil back in first place for the first time since the crash could be a timely warning to Fine Gael and Labour TDs about how things can change quickly in politics .

The steady decline in Fianna Fáil support from the autumn of 2008, leading to the catastrophic collapse in the election of February 2011, was the most dramatic change in the Irish political landscape for generations.

The recovery by the party since April of last year shows that Irish politics has taken another turn but it should not be all that surprising. The most striking feature of Irish political history is the stability of our democracy and party system even in times of extreme stress.

At one level the election of 2011 marked an amazing turnaround. Fianna Fáil went from 78 seats in the previous election to just 20, with its vote dropping from 42 per cent to 17 per cent. It was in the top three biggest electoral changes in western Europe since 1945, with only Italy and the Netherlands experiencing such a dramatic collapse in a governing party.

What made the Irish case different from the other two, however, was that in Italy and the Netherlands the collapse of a long-established party came about due to the rise of a new political force. In Ireland it was not a new party but Fine Gael, the successor of the party that founded the State in 1922, that took over the mantle of the biggest party after a lapse of 79 years.

And to reinforce the stability of the system, the Labour Party, which was founded just over a century ago, became the second biggest party for the first time in its history.

During the 2011 campaign the Fine Gael director of elections, Phil Hogan, asked Fianna Fáil supporters to lend his party their votes for one election and many of them obliged. It seems that after two years of the Coalition a significant number of them are at least thinking of returning home.

The development is a sobering one for Fine Gael but there is no need to press the panic button just yet. Back in June 2010 there was panic in Fine Gael when Labour pulled ahead of it in the polls and there was a heave against Kenny’s leadership. He managed to see off his rival and hasn’t looked back since, so it should take more than one poor poll now to undermine its confidence.

The demonstration of competence in government, by contrast with the irresponsibility of Fianna Fáil during the boom years, will be a strong card to play at the next election as long as Fine Gael doesn’t flinch from doing what is necessary to get the economy back to robust health.

Labour’s drop back to 10 per cent will obviously cause some angst in that party, but it should reinforce the point that its only chance of making it out of government in good order is to stick it out until the end when it can hope to have some real achievements to its name.

The local and European elections next year will be the real test of where all the parties stand. The Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee is drawing up new electoral areas. The date for submissions closed at the end of January, and a report detailing the new boundaries will be published in May.

A crucial element in the committee’s terms of reference is that the number of councillors representing each electoral area should typically be seven and not more than 10 or fewer than six. In a seven-seat area a quota will be 12.5 per cent and if the committee goes for the upper limit and introduces 10-seaters across the country it will be just 9 per cent.

The elections, which will take place in June of next year, will be particularly important for Fianna Fáil. The party needs a big infusion of new blood if it is going to make a significant recovery at the next general election. Big seven seat-plus electoral areas should give it a chance of getting new people elected, particularly in Dublin, where it badly needs new talent.

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