Pat Leahy: Quixotic Shane Ross semi-detached from rest of Government

Independent Alliance has ceased to function as a group

Independent Alliance members Seán Canney, Kevin “Boxer” Moran , Finian McGrath, John Halligan and Shane Ross. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Independent Alliance members Seán Canney, Kevin “Boxer” Moran , Finian McGrath, John Halligan and Shane Ross. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

In six months or so, the confidence-andsupply agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have expired.

It was agreed for three budgets; the third is due this October. There will be discussions before that about extending the agreement. But right now there is virtually nobody in the higher echelons of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael who believes an extension is likely. Ireland’s experiment in new politics is probably in its last phase.

Yet it has proved more durable than many people expected. At the time of its nativity, in May 2016, many predicted it wouldn’t last until Christmas. They missed the fact once it was set up, it was in the interests of the three participants – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Independents – to make it work. But the end is now visible in the middle distance.

In its early life, it seemed the Independents would be the ones to bring the edifice crashing down. Every week there seemed to be a fresh crisis and they sought to assert their identity. But the Independents have disappeared into the machinery of government. The experience of the Independents in Government has been mixed. The main vehicle for the Independents’ entry was Shane Ross and Finian McGrath’s Independent Alliance. This flag of convenience represented a bold political gamble and an acute judgment by the two boyos.

Brilliantly successful

But many of the Independent Alliance found once they got into Government they hadn’t much of an idea what they wanted to do. Not all of course; Zappone is clear about her objectives. McGrath realised the compromises that gaining control of disability policy and budgets would entail. Boxer Moran has his head down on flood defences. A party is bound together by common purpose and shared experience; the Independents are not. The experience of government for Ross especially does not appear to have been a happy one. If half the things his civil servants and his ministerial colleagues say are true, it has been a very unhappy one.

“He’s not a Minister in the conventional sense of the word,” says one senior civil servant. “He doesn’t sit at his desk, read briefs, make decisions.”

“He has no interest in his brief at all,” says another.

His obsessions – judges, Stepaside Garda station, appointments, “cronyism” – are quixotic, to say the least of it.

Unlike his colleagues, Ross remains semi-detached from the Government. But if Ross left now (and he has half-joked in the members’ bar that he would love to bring down a government) the odds are his Independent colleagues would not follow. It’s a signal to how the Independent Alliance has more or less ceased to function as a group. What will bring this Government down is the end of the confidence-and-supply agreement.

The novelty of the new politics experiment rested on two pillars: the inclusion of the Independents and the support of Fianna Fáil. Relations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are significantly worse than at any time since the arrangement began, according to people at the coalface. The rivalry continues to dominate politics. The two leaders are locked in a battle for personal supremacy. Fianna Fáil has targeted Varadkar since Christmas, realising he is the engine behind Fine Gael’s tumescent poll ratings (which they say they disbelieve, naturally). Talk to any Fianna Fáiler and they complain about Fine Gael. The Blueshirts disrespect us, they say. They don’t tell us what’s going on. They break the agreement about no surprises. They operate like a single-party government (largely true). Fine Gaelers tend to say: they do realise they’re in Opposition and we’re in Government?

No

serious pressure Serious differences are emerging

on Brexit and on the North. And yet, Fianna Fáil’s commitment to prop up the Government is not seriously under pressure. Barring an accident, having put up with it this long, they’ll put up with it a few months longer. It would be hard to say the agreement has promoted good government; but it would be equally hard to say it has prevented it. It is what it is.

Ultimately, the last election and the unusual government that flowed from it has restored the FG-FF rivalry to its place as the central dynamic of Irish politics; not as dominant as once, but still central. Political stability and economic recovery have brought us back to the future. The old allegiances have proved amazingly resilient. For all the complaining Irish people do about their politicians, they’re not in much of a hurry to change them, either. And if the polls are any indication, it is the Independents who will suffer at the next election, rather than the big two.

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