Pat Leahy: Pressure can build for 2018 election

The best the Government can hope for is to show modest progress on health and housing

The numbers of those without homes will continue to grow in 2018, house prices will continue to tick upwards, and the runaway inflation in rents, particularly in Dublin, will continue to be driven by the roaring engine of market forces

The numbers of those without homes will continue to grow in 2018, house prices will continue to tick upwards, and the runaway inflation in rents, particularly in Dublin, will continue to be driven by the roaring engine of market forces

 

Political predictions are a mug’s game. Nonetheless, it’s possible to forecast with some degree of confidence what the dominant themes of politics will be in the opening months of the new year, and even essay some reasonable speculation about how they might play out.

But first, a statement of the obvious: in 2018 it will be the big things that matter. By definition, little things – political controversies that last no more than a few hours or a day – don’t matter. Telling the difference between the two, rather than declaring a crisis every day, is the basis of any decent political analysis.

History lesson: Albert Reynolds was wrong. It’s not the little things that trip you up, it’s the big things. His government didn’t fall in 1994 because of an incomprehensible disagreement over a judicial appointment: it fell because the trust and common purpose between the two parties in government that enabled them to overcome inevitable daily disagreements had evaporated. That made collapse inevitable sooner or later.

This is pretty much the situation between the Government and Fianna Fáil at present. The idea that Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar were forced to overcome their differences at close quarters during the Frances Fitzgerald crisis and have established a comfortable new modus operandi is a flawed conclusion based on a misunderstanding of their interactions during that period.

Fine Gael’s public attitudes to Fianna Fáil have become more polite, but that is because the Government party is now treating its frenemy more warily. The electoral arms race is well under way, and preparations will be shortly completed.

All parties will be logistically ready for an election within a short period of time, from posters to candidates, from online campaigns to office space. A hair-trigger readiness for an election doesn’t guarantee one, but it makes it more likely. That is, I think, a big thing.

Classic mistake

So the threat of a sudden election will remain ever-present in the coming months. Campaigners for repeal of the Eighth Amendment who believe that there cannot be an election before the referendum make the classic mistake of single-issue campaigners everywhere – that everyone shares their priorities.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were quite willing to have an election before Christmas if necessary, scuppering the referendum timetable. They will do so again if they deem it in their interests.

Yet abortion is important – and will command vast swathes of newsprint and endless hours of broadcast time in the coming months – but it is hard to see it becoming an issue of decisive political partisanship.

Yes, parties will seek to position themselves for maximum political advantage, or to limit political damage from the position they or their representatives take on the issue.

Fine Gael, seeing both Fianna Fáil’s difficulties and the broad public and media support for repeal, will push the issue hard in the coming months, seeking to lead a successful referendum while recognising that many of its own supporters are uneasy on the issue.But the history of these sort of votes suggests that the ultimate political effects will be minimal.

Another way of looking at this is that most of the people who say on Twitter that they will never vote for such-and-such a party because of its stance on the issue would not have voted for them anyway. Yet the issue will dominate political discourse in the coming months in a way that it hasn’t since 1992 or 1983.

Domestic priorities

However, delivery of meaningful and measurable progress on health and housing will remain the Government’s more pressing domestic priorities in 2018. It will also remain by far its most difficult task. Neither problem will be definitively solved. The best the Government can hope for is to show modest progress.

Even at their most optimistic, Ministers say progress will be gradual. That means that the numbers of those without homes will continue to grow in 2018, house prices will continue to tick upwards, and the runaway inflation in rents, particularly in Dublin, will continue to be driven by the roaring engine of market forces. The basic problem – shortage of supply – will continue.

It means that emergency units will remain crowded; waiting lists Amazonian. The reforms of Sláintecare will be timidly commenced, but barring a wholesale change of policy (of which there is no sign), no more than that.

The great difficulty in addressing the housing and health problems are the moving goalposts of demographics. Build 10,000 homes but find that you need 25,000 a year to keep up. Treat more patients and find that an ageing population continually throws up more people waiting in emergency units.

But this is no excuse. Demographic pressures are entirely predictable. Ageing, after all, is hardly an unexpected process. There is even some foresight possible about the business of procreation. Pleading demographic pressures is simply highlighting your inability to plan for the future. That is a much bigger failure of politics and policy-making in Ireland.

Taxation rules

The Government will also be engaged in the more difficult and complex phase two of the Brexit negotiations while at the same time dealing with European Commission proposals to introduce some form of European taxation rules.

The commission wants to catch the massive revenues of the technology and internet giants, many of whom avoid paying billions in tax in the rest of the EU by paying a few hundred million euro here instead. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this development to Ireland.

The early polls will set the political mood, especially if Varadkar’s delayed honeymoon continues. In Fianna Fáil there is growing trepidation, privately acknowledged by some senior front-benchers, that it’s more than that – it’s a decisive move towards the new Taoiseach.

Continued movement towards Varadkar and his party would pile the pressure on Martin from his own party, and heighten the electoral temptations of the Taoiseach.

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