Pat Leahy: Government limps a little closer to the inevitable

It’s not that trust has broken down. It never really existed in the first place

Unless there is a radical resetting of relations between the two sides of the Government, there seems to be little future for the Government.

A complete breakdown was avoided yesterday when the Independents eventually agreed to appeal against the Apple decision, with Fine Gael agreeing to recall the Dáil and pass a "strong motion" on tax (for all the good that will do). This week's standoff tells us significant things about the Government which will affect its operations in the future.

Relations between the two sides are quite dysfunctional. That is not to say there is any personal unpleasantness; there is not, or hardly ever. But routine political communication between the sides, the ability to transact the normal business of any collective enterprise, the ability to have things taken on trust – these are largely absent.

One Cabinet Minister described the relations as toxic; another agreed with the description.

"There is a fundamental lack of trust between ourselves and the Independents," a Fine Gael Minister gloomily told me last week. One of the reasons the Independents were so shocked by the European Commission's ruling on Tuesday was that they didn't know the sum would be as big as €13 billion. They didn't know because Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny didn't trust them enough to share all the information they were getting out of Brussels.

One of the ways politicians communicate with one another is that they speak privately to journalists in a way they would never speak directly to one another.

Many conversations over the course of this week demonstrate that there is a chasm between the two sides of the Government. Put simply, they complain about each other all the time.

Reliable partners

On Thursday, one Independent TD denied half-heartedly to me that there was any breakdown in trust. That was not what Fine Gael was saying, I said. “Well, f**k them anyway,” he replied.

In a way, the Independent TD was right. It’s not that trust has broken down. It never really existed in the first place.

Kenny and his ministers have always had doubts that the Independents could be reliable or serious partners in Government. The Independents feel that Fine Gael does not treat them seriously or with respect or as equals. And a lot of the time, they have a point. But it’s not just about not getting on. There is also a great gulf in understanding between the two parts of the Government.

This is not just about personality and political differences. A lot of it stems from the fact that the two sides have a different view of the world and of politics.

One of the most fundamental divisions in Irish politics is between the two-thirds (roughly) of people who vote for centrist, established parties and Independents who feel they have a stake in society and want to make something like the existing politics work and the one-third who vote for Sinn Féin and radical left-wing parties and Independents who believe that established politics has failed and, indeed, often acted against their interests.

Fine Gael is firmly part of the first group, but the political hinterland of many of the Independents is very much on the side of the alienated one-third. Even Shane Ross, the former stockbroker, financial journalist, Trinity senator and darling of Dublin South, has gloried in the role of the "outsider", pointing his finger at the insiders and their cosy cartels.

Now the outsiders are inside. No wonder they are finding it difficult. No wonder Fine Gael can’t understand them.

Tension between the two sides of a coalition government is hardly novel. Trust does not mushroom overnight when a government is formed; it is built over time. Personal relationships and a modus operandi, a way of working together, take time to bed in. But that process does not appear to have begun in this Government. Nor will it begin unless those involved recognise the problem and try to fix it.

Previous coalition governments set up structures and protocols to avoid the sort of calamities we have seen in recent days, where the Cabinet is publicly split and the Government paralysed.

The last government had the Economic Management Council of senior ministers and officials which cleared most contentious decisions before they arrived at the cabinet. This was underpinned by strong personal relationships between Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan, but also at a backroom level between the Taoiseach and the then tánaiste's respective chiefs of staff, Mark Kennelly and first Mark Garrett and then Ed Brophy, and also (while Eamon Gilmore was tánaiste) between the economic advisers Andrew McDowell and Colm O'Reardon.

The backroom staff fixed most problems before they reached the cabinet or the public. Did they like each other? Not always. Did they serve different masters with sometimes conflicting needs? For sure. But they worked to implement the common agenda of the government, which lasted, for all its travails, a full term.

National interest

Nothing like that exists now. And as long as there isn’t a mechanism for solving problems, they won’t get solved. The Cabinet is not an effective problem-solving forum. This is mightily dull backroom stuff, but it is what enables a coalition government to function.

In a broader sense, Fine Gael needs to treat the Independents better in the future. The Independents, for their part, need to recognise that governments must often do unpopular things in the longer-term national interest.

To govern is to choose, and the choice is often not between right and wrong, as politicians imagine before they take office, but between bad and worse alternatives. The Apple case illustrates this. It won’t be the last such choice.