Stephen Collins: Chaotic Government undermines public confidence

Social cohesion needed to tackle Covid-19 so Coalition must be exemplar of unity

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: The lesson this week for the Government is  potential problems and inconsistencies need to be ironed out in advance of Cabinet meetings. Photograph:  Julien Behal/PA

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: The lesson this week for the Government is potential problems and inconsistencies need to be ironed out in advance of Cabinet meetings. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

 

The ham-fisted way the Government went about devising the new set of Covid-19 restrictions does not say much for the cohesion of the Coalition; far more ominously, the in-fighting at Cabinet has raised serious doubts about its ability to guide the country through the pandemic.

After what, by all accounts, was a shambolic Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Fine Gael Ministers claimed Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly had not engaged in prior consultation, while the Fianna Fáil side accused Leo Varadkar of acting as if he was still Taoiseach.

Unless the three party leaders quickly get a grip and start communicating with each other in a more structured fashion in advance of future Government meetings, they will make more mistakes and undermine public confidence in their capacity to tackle the crisis.

Things started to go wrong last Monday night when Ministers were informed that a full Cabinet meeting would take place the following day to consider new recommendations from the National Public Health Emergency Team. Fine Gael Ministers were surprised that a meeting of the Covid-19 Cabinet sub-committee was not summoned first to thrash out a clear response to the team.

The result was that an intense debate erupted at Cabinet with Varadkar in particular expressing anger at the way the issue was being dealt with. It appears that disagreement did not just break down on party lines, with some Fianna Fáil and Green Party Ministers also objecting to the initial plan put forward by Donnelly. The frayed tempers led to a substantial amount of chopping and changing which in turn resulted in a number of contradictory new restrictions being included in the plan announced by the Taoiseach after the meeting.

Inconsistencies and disrepute

For instance, outdoor sporting events will have to be held behind closed doors but cinemas can operate with social distancing; people are being discouraged from using public transport while children will be encouraged to avail of school busses; only six people from three households can meet in a private home but larger groups can eat out in restaurants.

Sources in all three Government parties say that to date no sense of esprit de corps has developed between Ministers of different parties or their advisers

While some inconsistencies were probably inevitable, the number of them threatens to bring the entire plan into disrepute. The angry response of the GAA was just one indication that the social cohesion which has been so important in dealing with the pandemic is beginning to fray.

The lesson for the Government is that potential problems and inconsistencies need to be ironed out in advance of Cabinet meetings. The entire system of Government advisers and Cabinet sub-committees is designed to ensure that disagreements are dealt with before they get to Cabinet so that they do not generate serious political instability.

Sources in all three Government parties say that to date no sense of esprit de corps has developed between Ministers of different parties or their advisers. One reason for this is the social-distancing restrictions imposed by the pandemic itself. Much Dáil business has been taking place in the Convention Centre, and Ministers and their officials no longer occupy offices along the ministerial corridor linking the Department of the Taoiseach and Leinster House. “Having adjacent offices enabled people from different Coalition parties to get to know each other and to discuss issues in an informal way. That is no longer the case,” remarked one adviser.

Leinster House

That raises the question of why Dáil business has been moved from Leinster House to the soulless Convention Centre. If politicians are expecting teachers and students to go back to school at the end of this month, why can’t they lead by example and find a way of operating in Leinster House while observing social distancing.

If another lockdown is out of the question, combating the virus will require a unified response from Irish society. That is why the Coalition needs to get its act together 

Anybody who has visited the Dáil knows that for most the time the chamber is inhabited by just a handful of TDs while the rest go about their business in their offices. Dáil votes do pose a problem of social distancing but surely it would not be impossible to devise a system whereby TDs could vote from their offices or come into the chamber in a staggered arrangement.

The shortcomings in the response of the political system to Covid-19 are an illustration of the fact that there is no perfect answer to dilemmas posed by the pandemic. On the one hand there is the imperative to do everything possible to protect life but, on the other, there is the necessity of avoiding complete economic collapse that would in the long run cost even more lives than Covid-19.

This is why politicians cannot countenance a return to a full lockdown, even if such a course of action is recommended by the public health emergency team. The scale of the economic hit inflicted by the virus has been cushioned to date by a range of Government support schemes but mass unemployment and widespread hardship will be hard to avoid.

If another lockdown is out of the question, combating the virus will require a unified response from Irish society. That is why the Coalition needs to get its act together from now on and come up with crisp, clear and coherent advice to get us through the tough times ahead.

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