Pat Leahy: School closures will lose votes of middle Ireland

Public’s faith in Coalition will be tested by whether it keeps classrooms open

It is said that oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them. As with much else in Irish politics, it’s a little bit more complicated than this aphorism, born in the relative simplicity of binary political systems with straightforward electoral contests, might suggest.

It is possible to “win” an Irish election and not be in government afterwards; or you can “lose” the contest but limp back to power after winning out in the post-election race for coalition formation. For an example, look no further than the last general election.

And yet there’s some truth in it still. Any election is in part a referendum on the sitting government, not just on its plans for the future, but also its record in power. If this be true, although the next general election is probably three years or more away and we should all be careful about long-term predictions, then the last two weeks have seen this Government move closer to losing the next election than at any time to date.

When a government loses the authority to lead, the jig's up, lads

The fourth wave of Covid and the advent of the Omicron threat have punched the Coalition in the gut and left it reeling; some of its leading figures privately admit as much.

The effects of this have been visible as it floundered in the face of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) push for further restrictions, the case for which leaves many senior figures unconvinced but which they do not feel able to resist.

The resurgence of Government-Nphet tensions had been a reality for several weeks before recent events brought them to the fore. At the end of the summer, remember, the Taoiseach was telling us that Nphet would be effectively abolished (at least as we had come to know it) and “would cease to exist as a separate body over time”. Who’s abolished now?

Nphet centre-stage

The rise of the fourth wave in October-November brought Nphet back centre-stage. The Government introduced the first round of new restrictions in mid-November – too mild for Nphet’s liking.

Even on the night that Micheál Martin faced the cameras and told people that all those pledges about there being no going back to restrictions would have to be set aside, political sources were grimly warning of more restrictions to come. When the new restrictions were leaked two weeks ago, the Government was blind-sided; five days later, the Cabinet had no choice but to follow Nphet’s recommendations. Ministers were seething.

A few days later, Nphet repeated the trick, recommending further restrictions on Thursday night; this time the Cabinet scrambled for a meeting the following day.

The animus against Nphet – not against its work, which Ministers and senior officials concede is carried out with the best of intentions and in good faith but against its habit of usurping the decision-making function of the Government – was now red-hot.

That’s what prompted the more-than-slightly farcical stricture on Nphet members to filter their interview requests through the Department of Health press office or the Government Information Service. Really, there is no disguising how weak all this makes the Government look.

For many people, that came home to them with the closing of the schools this week in the face of Storm Barra. Of course, if your school was in Ballinskelligs or Baltimore, you’d have been mad to send your child to school even if it was open.

But the panicky closing of the schools in Dublin and elsewhere on Tuesday – a not unpleasantly blustery day – and the 10 o’clock U-turn that evening to keep them closed for Wednesday (a bit wetter, but hardly Hurricane Katrina) told an awful lot of parents that the Coalition was not in control.

It was just doing whatever super-cautious officials advised it to do. Followers not leaders. And when a government loses the authority to lead, the jig’s up, lads.

Warning to Government

The explosion of the parents’ Whatsapps on Tuesday night when Wednesday’s closure was announced should serve as a warning to the Government about the importance of the schools issue to a whole chunk of middle-class, middle-aged, middle Ireland.

On Wednesday night, Denmark announced it would close schools early and lengthen the Christmas break. This is exactly what lots of parents fear; those same Whatsapp groups throb with rumours. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked about it.

Ministers don’t want to close the schools but what this week tells us is that they might not be strong enough to stop it. That’s an important signal, and that’s why this week’s closures were a huge political mistake.

The message that screamed out to parents from the unnecessary closures is that the Government’s assurances the schools will remain open are not worth the paper they’re not written on.

These parents are not stupid; they know that sky-high Covid levels represent a threat to public health. But they are too familiar with the costs of lockdown – on their elderly parents as well as their young children, actually – to shrug and accept it as a necessity. Especially when ventilation is sketchy, vaccination slow and social life humming.

Look in the breakdowns of the polls, listen to the focus groups, watch them on social media. If the schools close, much of middle Ireland will just give up on the Government.

That would be a political shift of enduring significance. Poor old Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, late of Manchester United, was judged to have “lost the dressing room” when nobody believed he could lead the team any more. This Government is skirting dangerously with a similar loss of authority.