Pat Leahy: How Irish politics and society may be reshaped by Covid-19

No new government has ever faced such a daunting immediate future. It will be no place for the faint-hearted

Paschal Donohoe has some firepower to meet increased social welfare, health spending and business-support requirements brought on by Covid-19. But it is not unlimited. Photograph: Getty Images

Paschal Donohoe has some firepower to meet increased social welfare, health spending and business-support requirements brought on by Covid-19. But it is not unlimited. Photograph: Getty Images

 

For the second time in 12 years the country is gripped by fear. In 2008, people suddenly woke up to the realisation that their lives would be changed drastically by an economic crisis which would reduce and, in many cases, destroy the personal prosperity they had come to take for granted.

Today, an economic hit is only a byproduct of a public health crisis that may dwarf the crash of the late 2000s, and leave our society permanently scarred.

The economic crash changed the politics of Ireland forever. It destroyed – eventually, as the recent election demonstrated – the old 2½ party system, ending the duopoly of the old Civil War parties.

The emerging calamity that is the Covid-19 outbreak is likely to have similar far-reaching effects. Here are five ways in which politics may be changed, in the short and long term, by coronavirus.

1 There will be a recession, and it may be very severe. Economic activity is grinding to a halt. Businesses will face a cash crunch within weeks, and there is likely to be mass lay-offs, beginning in the hospitality industry and soon extending to the rest of the economy.

I wish this was just speculation, but I fear it is already under way. How long this lasts depends on the progress of the virus, and how severe the impact is in Ireland. That is anyone’s guess at the moment. It may be a relatively short-lived experience, and the economy may bounce back quickly afterwards as consumer spending and demand catches up rapidly. Or it may not.

Yet at the very least there will be an immediate hit to public finances. Paschal Donohoe has some firepower to meet increased social welfare, health spending and business-support requirements. But, as the Taoiseach warned, it is not unlimited. If this goes on for several months, we are looking at huge job losses, pay cuts and all the damnable rest of it.

2 If the crisis is as bad as some fear, it could destroy the remaining authority of the parties and the political class that have always run the government. You will have noticed that nobody else in Opposition was jumping in to join the Greens’ call for a national government. The truth is the Government – including Fianna Fáil – will be judged by how the crisis is managed.

If the hospitals are completely overwhelmed and tens of thousands of people die in their homes, then whenever the crisis passes, that government will be blamed, and the punishment inflicted by the public when that government inevitably falls over will be severe.

And it won’t matter whether it’s that government’s fault or not. On the other hand, if the outbreak here is not as severe as some people fear, competent management of the crisis and a lower mortality rate than other countries will bolster the credibility of the two old parties as a new government beds down for a five-year term.

3 Whatever happens, there will be a post-crisis demand for a much better health system. One of the things that is making Ireland vulnerable right now is the fact that much of the public hospital system is constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed – as anyone who has visited an emergency unit over the winter will tell you.

Of course there are complex reasons for that, but ultimately they come down to a lack of political will, a lack of money and a lack of co-operation from interests in the health sector.

My guess is that when we emerge from this crisis there will be a public impatience with all of those lacunae beyond anything seen so far. I think people will demand a public health service that works in the normal course of events, and is prepared for emergencies such as the one we are currently experiencing. At the moment it does neither.

This will involve massive new investment, but also a system that uses that investment more productively. This will go far, far beyond the outline sketch of the Sláintecare plan, to which the political commitment on all sides – including some of its great supporters – is currently sketchy at best.

4 The expansion of public capacity will not be limited to healthcare. I think there will be a demand – among politicians and among the public – for a bigger state with a greater ability to react to and deal with such events.

Some of that may be expressed in a pan-European context – a desire to give the EU more power and resources to address international problems (such as migration) than it currently wields.

A bigger state is also a more expensive state, so this will require additional revenues. Current efforts to increase the level of taxation on multinational companies offer one such route, but raising extra revenues in or after a deep international recession will be extremely difficult. The Irish demand for a big state has always been tempered by a reluctance to pay for it. That balance is likely to shift somewhat.

5 In the short term the Covid-19 outbreak is likely to fast-track efforts to form a new government. The Greens’ remarkable decision to opt out of the process – shunning the opportunity to write the new government’s climate policy – has in some way simplified the task for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Depending on the severity of the crisis to come, that government may be short-lived, or it may come through a baptism of fire. Certainly no government has ever faced such a daunting immediate future. It will be no place for the faint-hearted.

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