Pat Leahy: Bitter and binary Dáil rows ignore bigger issues

Parties need to partner better, stop fighting and tackle tax, defence and healthcare

If there's one thing the resumption of the Dáil tells us, it's that the return of politics-in-person to Leinster House this week will change the way business is conducted. The socially distanced Dáil chamber on Wednesday evening was a lot more in-your-face than the cavernous Convention Centre and the fierce, personal nature of the exchanges between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin at the confidence debate were a sign of things to come. It gives the impression of a politics that will be bitter and binary between the two largest parties.

It suits both to have it like that, of course. But there is sufficient electoral evidence to suggest that however neat a media narrative this might make for, voters know, and relish the fact, that their choices extend far beyond the two would-be duopolists. Fine Gael won 21 per cent of the vote at the general election in 2020; Sinn Féin won 24.5. That’s 54.5 per cent of voters who didn’t vote them. In the Dublin Bay South byelection in June, the two parties combined won 42 per cent of the vote. No matter how much they both assert that the choice is one of them or the other, voters just ain’t buying it.

This fact, along with the spectacle of the divided Dáil during the week, prompts a number of observations that it seems to me are relevant for the current state and likely future trajectory of Irish politics.

The first is that if Sinn Féin wishes to lead a left-wing government after the next election, it will be necessary not just for the party to maintain and improve its current impressive run in the polls – the other parties of the left will have to improve too. Moreover, they will have to subscribe to the same general policy platform that Sinn Féin espouses, if there is to be the basis for an agreed programme for government and a workable coalition. In other words, Sinn Féin needs to build bridges to the rest of the left. Given the tendency of the Irish left towards bitter division – witness the fierce antipathy in the Social Democrats to any talk of a merger with the Labour Party – one can only say: good luck with that.


Government vs opposition

The second is that Fine Gael, if it is to continue to play a central role in Irish politics, needs to make its partnership with Fianna Fáil work. There is a school of thought in the party that suggests it has been "too long in government" and "needs a spell in opposition" to renew itself and rejuvenate its ranks. Stuff and nonsense. Any party worth its salt should want to be in government; that is where you do things, fulfil your promises, make a difference, implement change (for the better, or worse). Governments can do; oppositions just talk. Fine Gael, if everyone keeps their word, will be in government for another 3½ years, so it is rather early to start talking about going into opposition. Rather like you-know-who, Fine Gael sought and has been given a job by the Irish people. The electorate won't take too kindly if Fine Gael, for whatever reason, gives up on doing it.

Any party worth its salt should want to be in government. Governments can do; oppositions just talk

The third observation is that for all the sound and fury of Wednesday night, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are more comfortable in having a go at one another than facing up to the challenges and choices facing the country. The truth is that the country faces some fundamental decisions in the coming months about the path it wishes to take, both domestically and internationally. Sinn Féin and Fine Gael aren’t all that keen to talk about them: they’re happier kicking lumps out of one another. But that doesn’t mean the choices and decisions will go away.

There's tax: as the furrowed brow of Paschal Donohoe attests, Ireland is under unrelenting pressure on its corporation tax regime. Reports in The Irish Times this week about pharma giant Abbott continuing to avail of a structure using Dublin and Malta to (legally) avoid taxes did not go unnoticed in EU capitals. Donohoe and the Government are facing massive decisions soon with implications that will last decades.

Military capacity

There's defence: whether we like it or not, Irish neutrality as we know it is also likely to come under pressure as EU members push for more defence co-operation. The unilateral US exit from Afghanistan has confirmed for many EU members the need for an EU military capacity, something that will be politically difficult for any Irish government. But just because it's tricky for Dublin doesn't mean it's not going to happen.

The Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael commitment to Sláintecare has always been a mile wide and an inch deep

And at home, there are hard choices coming in health, too. The recent resignations of Sláintecare leaders show a programme that is – perhaps understandably after the pandemic – stuttering at best. In truth, the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael commitment to Sláintecare has always been a mile wide and an inch deep. It has been tremendously useful as a way of neutralising health as a political issue: the answer everyone gave to every question about health during the last election campaign was “We will implement Sláintecare.”

But on the politically difficult bits of the reform programme – such as eliminating the advantages of private health insurance – the two old parties, and much of senior officialdom, have been distinctly unenthusiastic. But if this government, or any other one, wants to push ahead with it, it will have to push ahead with turning the screw on private health insurance.

The range of difficult choices coming on climate action could fill a column on their own. As could the budgetary choices that are looming. But nobody wants to talk about all that. Trash-talking the other guys is easier. At one point in the exchanges on Wednesday night, someone loudly shouted “Bulls**t!” That’s about it, alright.