Pat Leahy: Parties must now look at a wider political agenda as Covid recedes

Fianna Fáil’s performance on health and housing will matter more than internal difficulties

The challenge  facing Mary Lou McDonald and her colleagues  is to work out policies and plans that could viably be implemented by the party in government; to convey that it is not just an effective opposition but a government-in-waiting. Photograph: Getty Images

The challenge facing Mary Lou McDonald and her colleagues is to work out policies and plans that could viably be implemented by the party in government; to convey that it is not just an effective opposition but a government-in-waiting. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Listen hard towards the end of the coming week and you’ll hear a long sigh of relief hissing though the air in that quarter of Dublin’s south city centre which houses the epicentre of our nation’s politics and government. It will be the communal exhalation of politicians and officials after a gruelling political term. Their plight will arouse little sympathy, but I have seldom seen a group of people – politicians, officials, advisers, Government and Opposition – more in need of a break.

Anyway, the imminent beginning of the summer holiday is a good point at which to assess the state of Irish politics, the fortunes of its principal actors, and their prospects for the autumn political term and beyond.

A year into office the coalition has settled into the business of government, albeit in the most unusual of circumstances (governments usually do, of course). The early wobbles and obvious difficulties between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – remember it is only a year since Leo Varadkar warned a Cabinet meeting they might not be doing business for much longer – have settled down, and while it would be overstating things to say the two leaders have established a mutual investment in a common goal, at least they are not conspicuously at odds.

Fianna Fáil remains beset by internal difficulties, with the steadying effect of decent opinion poll results disrupted by the byelection calamity. Micheál Martin – as ever backed by the members more than his parliamentary party – sought to rally against his detractors at last week’s parliamentary party. He got his answer in the Sunday Independent, where no fewer than three of his TDs renewed their criticisms.

I think a proper showdown at the parliamentary party’s September pre-Dáil meeting might be inevitable. After that, however, the TDs’ rebelliousness will matter less; the party’s performance in government, especially in the crucibles of health and housing that will dominate political debate as Covid recedes, will matter more.

This is the larger point for the party’s fortunes: the most important thing is the stuff voters actually care about. It is not an especially perceptive piece of political analysis to say that the public doesn’t care that much about Fianna Fáil’s internal machinations.

Niggling worry

Fine Gael is less unsettled; but it is not entirely settled either. The Garda investigation into Varadkar’s leaking of a document is an enduring, niggling worry, and while nobody in politics seriously believes it will lead to leadership-ending criminal charges against him, Fine Gaelers at all levels wonder why the matter hasn’t concluded.

Meanwhile, the byelection result shows that the public hasn’t so far bought Varadkar’s “Fine Gael vs Sinn Féin” framing and it’s hard to see why they might do so in the future. The party, in other words, needs a new narrative for the next election. One that is grounded in its performance in government and its plans for the future might stand a better chance of resonating with voters.

The Green Party finishes a year in government with its climate action agenda well under way. If you had told Green members a year ago that by now they would have got a strong climate Act on the statute books, massive investment in cycling and walking infrastructure and a host of other wins – such as a White Paper to end direct provision – they would have jumped at it.

As the example of Des O’Malley and the Progressive Democrats shows, usually the way to change government policy is through the influence of a small party on a bigger party in coalition. Labour did it too. The Greens are now doing it with the two bigger parties on climate action.

Things will become harder, though, as the reality of the climate action measures dawns on people inside and outside the Government. The Greens will have to be ready to defend policy decisions which will cause enormous inconvenience – at least in the short-term – and consequently will be tremendously unpopular.

Moreover, the Greens will have to justify these measures to people who are a lot less concerned about global warming than they are. I am not sure they are prepared for this. I know that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are not. It may sound strange after a first year which has been dominated by the pandemic, but this may turn out to be the Government’s greatest challenge.

Preparation

For Sinn Féin this is a time of possibility and of preparation for the future. As noted hereabouts before, the party is a fiercely effective opposition, though it has been understandably wary about criticising a Government that has – most of the time, though certainly not all – enjoyed the public’s backing on Covid.

Instead, expect Sinn Féin to target the coalition on health and the housing crisis, even as Fianna Fáil prepares to steal its clothes on housing. But whatever happens with that, Sinn Féin will continue to accuse the Government of looking after the better-off, the gilded circles, the elites, at the expense of everyone else. This is a legitimate political tactic, but let us recognise it for what it is – Sinn Féin’s brand of left populism.

The thing about populism of all types is that it always, always proposes simple solutions to complex problems. This, then, is the challenge now facing Mary Lou McDonald and her colleagues – to work out policies and plans that could viably be implemented by the party in government; to convey, in other words, that it is not just an effective opposition but a government-in-waiting. It has some way to go.

The most important trend in politics in recent months has been the emergence of other issues apart from Covid on to the political agenda as the pandemic ceases to dominate absolutely everything. Let’s hope that continues into the autumn and a post-Covid politics emerges.

News Digests

Stay on top of the latest newsSIGN UP HERE
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.