Sustaining sense of common purpose key to Government success

Ministers must quickly bend operations of government to their will and deadlines

President Michael D Higgins presents new Ministers with their seals of office. Photograph: Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins presents new Ministers with their seals of office. Photograph: Maxwells

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The weather gods were unable to decide their attitude to the new government on Saturday. By turns they battered the national convention centre with lashing rain, whipping up white horses on the murky Liffey outside, before changing their minds and bathing the concrete and glass in bright, dazzling sunshine.

Perhaps, like many present, they were confused by it all. Did it represent a bold new beginning, the two old rivals at last combining with the Greens to deliver a reforming government unlike any we have seen before? Or a last, desperate clutch at power of a desiccated establishment whose days are numbered, that has been weighed and found wanting?

Whatever your take – and the truth lies probably somewhere between the two – there are new facts on the ground in Irish politics. There is a new Government; it has a plan; it has the means to at least begin implementing it.

Even if it often doesn’t last very long, all governments start with a fair wind behind them and a spring in their step. This one will be no different. Even in the deepest depths of the financial crisis, on his first day as taoiseach, Enda Kenny was lionised for walking to work, a distance of some 711 yards (yes, I am afraid I measured it) from his Dublin apartment. “A good start!” the reports gushed. He would face stiffer challenges.

Geographically unbalanced

True, the Cabinet is a bit geographically unbalanced, and the wailing at it demonstrates how important localism, for good or ill, is a part of our politics. Three Ministers in one constituency, two in another and another two from the small town of Greystones is a consequence of three parties with specific needs, but it is not without short-term political cost.

It is unlikely, however, that we will be talking about it in a week’s time. The criticisms of not enough Limerick men or Waterford women will have the balm of junior ministries applied to them. The murderous mutterings of disappointed Fianna Fáilers on Saturday will blow over – they always do – moderating to the half-muted grumbling that has been the constant companion to Micheál Martin’s leadership of his party. Partly that has been because Martin – never one of the lads – has always had an uneasy relationship with his TDs, but more so because he has constantly led them in directions – same-sex marriage, confidence and supply, repeal of the Eighth Amendment – with which they have been uncomfortable. Had he not, it is hard to see how they could have returned to government.

Unlike its immediate predecessor, this administration has a strong majority, and while that is no guarantor of anything, it is important in a parliamentary democracy. Unlike the minority Fine Gael government, its writ will run in the Dáil. On a day when the counting of heads was paramount, one number was more important than all the others: 93 votes for Micheál Martin as Taoiseach, 63 against. A 20- or 30-vote majority will decompress parliamentary pressure considerably.

It’s a young Cabinet – Martin is the oldest, and he’s not yet 60. There are three other 50-somethings and the rest are in their 30s and 40s. The Fine Gael old guard has been cleared out – even utility player par excellence Richard Bruton – and there were some eye-catching promotions of young women Helen McEntee and Hildegarde Naughten. The Greens have innovated by bringing Pippa Hackett in from the Seanad. It all looks pretty changey.

Martin has put his faith in two men, untried in government and steady rather than spectacular in opposition, to be Fianna Fáil’s political salvation. It’s hard to overstate how much hangs on Stephen Donnelly and Darragh O’Brien making progress in health and housing that is not just measurable in Civil Service output statements, but tangible and palpable in the real lives of people. If Fianna Fáil can credibly say it has made a difference in these areas, it can have a realistic political future. The opposite also applies.

Vigorous Opposition

The coalition will be faced with a vigorous and vocal Opposition. Mary Lou McDonald will be a formidable opponent in the Dáil chamber and the media, on the doorsteps and online. Her speech in the Dáil on Saturday had plenty of ol’ time religion about the inevitability of a united Ireland for her base, but also plenty of outsiders v insiders, the people v the establishment, change v more of the same. It will be a heady cocktail.

Other Opposition TDs spoke a lot about “betrayal” by the Greens; one looked forward to the Government becoming “one of the most hated governments in the history of the State”. Irish politics may be about to enter a much more polarised phase.

Two things will decide the Government’s success or failure, one within its control, one without. The first is the temper of its own will; the second is the future circumstances it faces. If it is to be successful, the first must match the challenges of the second.

First, its Ministers must quickly get to grips with the great clanking machine of government and bend its operations to their will and their deadlines. This applies in health and housing especially, but elsewhere too. It will need a sense of common purpose and of shared goals that will need to be tended daily. The system of Cabinet committees is set to be revived, the (new) Taoiseach indicated. But that will not in itself manage the differences and conflicts that are inevitable. Only strong leadership and buy-in from all its constituent parts will do that.

But it will also need good fortune. The pandemic will return, in some shape or form, and its economic and public-health costs are impossible to predict.

This is a country facing a €30 billion deficit this year, with a still crippled economy, reopening only in fits and uncertain starts. We depend on massive borrowings to sustain our society. If anything disrupts that ability to borrow, things will get very difficult very quickly. Our public-health system – previously creaking, remember – remains on high alert for a pandemic that left unchecked could quickly fill its hospitals.

All governments are at the mercy of events. Few have begun their journey in such daunting times. There will surely be more storms to come.

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