Stephen Collins: We should be happy Irish politics is boring
Our current Dáil is a paragon of common sense by comparison with the Commons
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald with the Cabinet, in Áras an Uachtaráin. Irish commentators have often drawn comparisons between the eloquence of so many MPs and the plodding delivery of most of our TDs.
The sorry spectacle of politics in the UK should give those who casually dismiss Irish politicians as second rate, or even venal, some pause for thought.
The UK political class has set out on a ruinous course that will condemn its people to a declining standard of living for decades to come. This is a direct consequence of appalling decisions by the two parties that have ruled the country for almost a century.
The Conservative Party must take the lion’s share of the blame for the suicidal direction of British policy on Europe but the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has compounded the problem and is offering no viable alternative.
It is astonishing to contemplate the fact that between them the Tory right and the Labour hard left have effectively captured the political system and it seems there is nothing that can be done about it.
A clear majority of MPs in the House of Commons know that it is in Britain’s interests to remain in the EU, or at the very least to conclude the softest possible exit, but that majority appears powerless in the face of the ideologues of right and left.
Irish commentators have often drawn invidious comparisons between the silver-tongued eloquence of so many MPs and the plodding delivery of most of our TDs.
However, the bottom line when it comes to judging politicians should not be what they say but what they do. On that score our current Dáil, for all its faults, is a paragon of common sense by comparison with the Commons.
Presented with an intractable stalemate after last year’s general election the two biggest parties, which have been rivals since the foundation of the State, managed to cobble together an arrangement to ensure the centre ground could not be outflanked.
The confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has some serious flaws but it has enabled the two parties to find a way of co-operating on the big budgetary issues that will determine the economic health of the country and the welfare of its people.
The arrangement has limited the ability of the substantial minority of TDs who advocate profligate and unsustainable policies to foist their policies on the Dáil.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe observed this week that we have been spared the rise of the ugly, often intolerant, hard right in some EU countries that conflates xenophobia and nationalism but he told the MacGill summer school in Glenties: “One need not look any further than our own Dáil to see the mirror image of this: a far left that resists change, and engages in the thuggery traditionally associated with the ugly far right.”
Yet, for all its headline-grabbing success on issues such as the water charges, the far left has had a limited impact on the overall direction of Irish politics because of the way the centre ground held its nerve at a difficult time.
This is not to underestimate the fact that significant proportion of the electorate has bought into the populist narrative which depicts Ireland as a country where decisions are made only in the interests of elites, not of the people and where a government of the centre is portrayed as incapable of representing ordinary people.
There are signs, though, that the populist tide has peaked here and in other European countries. A former Labour Party adviser remarked recently that he had come to the conclusion the left-right divide in politics was now meaningless.
The real divide now is between parties and politicians who want to take responsibility for governing and those who believe politics is about expressing outrage and avoiding all responsibility for the difficult choices that government entails.
The wrong turning taken by the British should be a warning to those who have allowed anger to get in the way of common sense in their response to the economic travails of the past decade.
There is still an outside chance that the Brexit decision will be reversed when the full impact of the decision is laid bare in the negotiations over the next two years.
Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman has suggested that when it becomes clear that the vision of a pain-free Brexit painted during the referendum campaign was an illusion and the real choices become clear, the slim pro-Brexit majority could easily fall apart.
While any attempt to hold a second referendum will inevitably be denounced by the Tory right and much of the British print media as undemocratic, the notion that a country should be stuck with a bad decision in perpetuity on the basis of a referendum result is absurd.
The centre ground in the UK has something to learn from Ireland. The major Dáil parties did not shirk a second referendum on the Nice or Lisbon treaties or, for that matter, on the issue of divorce. They recognised that referendum decisions are no more immutable than elections and gave the people a second chance to consider.
So, for all we like to complain about our own politicians, maybe the Dáil summer recess is an appropriate time to echo EM Forster’s plea for democracy against the forces of totalitarianism. Two cheers for our TDs.