Pat Leahy: Post-referendum politics faces into a full plate

Brexit, budget, confidence-and-supply deal and health all need serious attention

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar casts his vote at Scoil Thomáis, Castleknock: as well as dealing with the result, the Government has many other pressing issues  to resolve.  Photograph Niall Carson/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar casts his vote at Scoil Thomáis, Castleknock: as well as dealing with the result, the Government has many other pressing issues to resolve. Photograph Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

As noted hereabouts before, politics will be changed by the referendum, whatever the result on Saturday. But either way, the business of governing the country will continue on Monday. And though it often hasn’t seemed like it during the monochrome weeks of the referendum campaign, there are important and urgent issues requiring the Government’s attention over the coming weeks. All will have long-term, and immediate, consequences.

A significant part of any successful political operation is attention to process. This is especially so in the Taoiseach’s office, where the sheer range and variety of decisions and action required make a smooth running of the office, diary, schedule and order of priorities essential. The machine has to work smoothly.

Of course, the backroom has to juggle things; that’s in the nature of any politician’s life, but it is especially the case in Ireland where our political model demands a high degree of accessibility from political leaders, right up to and including the highest office. But the machine also has to have a clear sense of priorities, an ability to separate the significant decisions from the ones that matter less.

Over the coming weeks, the Government will face significant choices on Brexit, the budget and on the future of the health service.

First Brexit. The UK spent weeks signalling – both to the commission and to Dublin – that it was preparing to make a proposal on a form of customs partnership that would break the deadlock in the negotiations ahead of the crucial June summit and satisfy the Irish Government’s concerns about the Border. But Theresa May’s big idea – maintaining regulatory alignment between the EU and the whole of the UK for a time-defined period – has done neither.

The Taoiseach met May last week and if their meeting was more cordial than some previous encounters, it was no less unproductive. This week, Leo Varadkar said he was willing to examine any new “reasonable” proposals from the British, but he hadn’t seen them yet. And time is running out, he added, rather ominously.

Rather more bluntly, as Paddy Smyth reported from Brussels on Friday, a senior commission official described the British proposal as a “fantasy”. As far as the EU is concerned, it amounts to the British cherry-picking the parts of the single market they like, while rejecting the ones they don’t like. And rule one of the Brexit negotiations for the EU is: no cherry-picking.

British capitulation

The British pooh-poohed the EU rejection as “negotiating tactics”. That looks like a serious misread. Indeed, the British have been misreading the EU since this process began – which is one of the reasons why they have ended up conceding on every major point. But May might not survive another major concession, and therefore will be ill-disposed to making one. So as things stand, the negotiations are on course for collapse. One official familiar with the state of play describes the options to me as a British capitulation, or a breakdown in the negotiations. And if there is a breakdown, Ireland will be at the centre of it.

May might not survive another major concession, and therefore will be ill-disposed to making one. So as things stand, the negotiations are on course for collapse

Decision time is also approaching on health. Leave aside the ongoing fallout from the cervical cancer controversy; in the next few weeks, the Government will publish its implementation plan for Sláintecare, the all-party plan for a complete reform of the healthcare system. Despite playing lip-service to the Sláintecare proposals – among them the separation of the public and private systems, and inevitably a significant increase in spending on health – the Government (both the permanent and the political wings of it) are not quite as convinced of all this as you might have thought.

“There’s one thing that the Sláintecare implementation plan won’t be about,” I am told. What’s that? “The implementation of Sláintecare.”

Simon Harris should enjoy the plaudits he will get the result is a yes, and the love he is getting from social media Yes campaigners for his (admittedly effective and ubiquitous) campaigning for repeal. Because it won’t last long.

Pay increases

One of the principal objections to the Sláintecare proposals in Government is the cost. But Paschal Donohoe has other pressing causes for worry too. Public service workers are demanding pay rises for recent recruits, with nurses and teachers in the vanguard threatening strikes. The Government points out that trade unions signed up to a multiyear deal for pay increases just last year, which they are now trying to reopen. It also says that pay increases for public servants are costing nearly €400 million this year. And Varadkar pointed out at a recent committee hearing that many public servants are receiving three pay increases this year, when you include increments.

But none of that will cut it. You don’t have to be an assiduous student of politics and government to figure out what happens when you put together a weak government approaching an election, a bulging exchequer, and strong public sector unions. The squeeze from the unions is coming, no matter what the Government says.

Finally, and perhaps most consequentially, by the beginning of the summer Varadkar will probably have to decide how this Government ends. He has said he will approach Micheál Martin for an extension of the confidence-and-supply agreement; the Fianna Fáil leader has said the agreement runs until the budget, and he will talk then. But the belief in Government Buildings is that going beyond the budget merely allows Fianna Fáil to pick the time of greatest advantage for collapse of the scrum. So Varadkar needs a strategy by the time of the summer break. Busy times ahead.

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