Pat Leahy: The Government’s youth is starting to have an impact
The generational transformation of Irish political leadership in 2017 has been dramatic
Catherine Noone, who chaired discussions of the committee on the Eighth Amendment: the emerging position on abortion is not one that would have been even contemplated in the days of Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
So will you discuss politics much over the Christmas dinner? Didn’t think so.
Those who work in politics and those who observe them know this intellectually but forget it regularly all the same: most people aren’t that interested in politics. Sure they get that it’s important and has a relevance to their lives. They tune in at elections and budgets and at other times when politics unavoidably intrudes into their lives. They vote, most of the time. But they’re not much interested beyond that. This is one of the key insights that any politician can have.
But even people who don’t pay much attention to politics will have noticed a few things happening this year. They’ll have noticed that the Government suddenly looks and sounds a lot different, a lot younger. If that seems like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, it may also be a statement of the bleedin’ significant. The relative youth of the Government may well be one of the most important things about it.
The generational transformation of Irish political leadership in 2017 has been dramatic. Out went Enda Kenny (66), Michael Noonan (74) and Frances Fitzgerald (67).
Promoted were Leo Varadkar (38), Simon Coveney (45), Paschal Donohoe (43), Eoghan Murphy (35), Regina Doherty (45), Joe McHugh (45), Helen McEntee (30), Josepha Madigan (47). Simon Harris (31) was in Cabinet already.
Into the junior ranks came John Paul Phelan (39), Michael D’Arcy (47) and Brendan Griffin (35).This is a Fine Gael transformation. Almost all the oldies in the Cabinet are Independents.
They say you know you are getting old when the gardaí on the street start looking very young. But what does it say about a country when there is almost nobody over the age of 50 in positions of significant political and national leadership?
There has not been such a youthful leadership of the country since Collins, Griffith, Cosgrave and O’Higgins.
This will matter, I think. It has to matter. Each generation is different from its predecessor and the pace of change in Ireland has been sometimes dizzying. But there has rarely been such a clean sweep of generational change as we have seen in the past year. It is reminiscent of New Labour in the UK in 1997.
It already matters in visible ways. Take abortion. The emerging position on abortion – legalising abortion on request up to 12 weeks – is not one that would have been even contemplated in the days of Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan.
Kenny was famously allergic to discussion of the abortion issue, which tended to have his middle Ireland antennae twitching in alarm. No act of Kenny’s first government was as politically fraught for Fine Gael and its leader as the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act in 2013 – a piece of legislation which merely codified the existing law as laid down by the Supreme Court. And this was the government that implemented the worst of the austerity measures. It lost fewer TDs over budgets than it did over abortion. Yet in the recent discussions of the committee on the Eighth Amendment (chaired by Catherine Noone, 41) it was treated like something from the dark ages.
Kenny and Noonan and their contemporaries also had the fear of the power of the pro-life lobby that was shared by all politicians of their generation who had experienced the awesome political power that the Catholic right could bring to bear in its 1980s heyday.
But that’s 30 years ago, and the younger Ministers in power now have no fear of anti-abortion campaigners. Why would they? Yes, they hear from pro-life activists. But they’re not afraid of them. And they probably have got more abuse from Repealers over the last few years.
Their social circles are far more likely to be populated by repealers than pro-lifers. You can be sure that many of them have found themselves having to explain Ireland’s abortion ban to puzzled audiences of up and coming politicians from other EU countries at fun-filled weekends organised by the youth branch of the European People’s Party, or whatever.
So Varadkar’s administration will be – and is being – a lot less timorous in dealing with the abortion issue. I expect that will continue.
I think you can also see a reflection of the administration’s youth in its dealings on the North.
Varadkar first stood for election after the Belfast Agreement. He and most of his Cabinet do not belong to the generation of politicians in Dublin that shaped and then husbanded a fragile peace.
Consequently, he is a good bit more cavalier about North-South relations, especially with the hypersensitive DUP, than any of his predecessors. Perhaps he discerns that there may be an underserved southern appetite for occasionally telling the DUP where to get off. This might be understandable, indeed gratifying for him. It is also incautious. You couldn’t imagine Bertie Ahern doing it. But incaution is a mark of youth.
Perhaps most significantly, the new generation has come to power at a time of a stark and growing intergenerational disparity in Ireland as well as the rest of the western world. In pensions, pay, housing and secure employment many younger people face conditions that are much less favourable than preceding generations. Many of these can be addressed by Government policy.
If the young Government that took office this year wants to win the votes of its distracted, disaligned, apolitical peers – who don’t pay much attention to politics until it affects them – it needs to introduce policies that address these matters.
Housing is the most pressing. Half a million young adults live at home with their parents. They aren’t coming home for Christmas – they’re already there.
Abortion will grab the headlines but housing will become the do-or-die domestic issue for this Government (and incidentally the one on which Fianna Fáil is most likely to pull the plug) in the new year.