The real danger is political stalemate as the roof falls in


The banking system has failed the people; if the political system now fails then there is no knowing what might happen, writes STEPHEN COLLINS.

THE INCREASINGLY bitter Dáil exchanges between the Taoiseach and the Opposition leaders over the past few days have only obscured the scale of the problem now facing the country.

It goes far deeper than the names of the 10 in the Anglo Irish Golden Circle; it is whether the political system is capable of dealing with the terrifying nature of the economic challenge ahead.

There is no longer any arguing with the proposition that Fianna Fáil has been in office for far too long. The snail’s pace nature of its response to the economic crisis since last summer, the craven dependence on the social partners to endorse its decisions and the debacle created by its pals in Anglo Irish Bank are testament enough to that.

However, the vacuous nature of the contribution from the Opposition parties to the debate on the Government’s €2 billion savings package indicates that they have been in Opposition for so long that they have lost the ability to understand what needs to be done, let alone being able to put forward a coherent alternative strategy.

The country is locked into the position of having a Government that is so widely disliked and distrusted, as evidenced in The Irish Times poll a week ago, that its capacity to take the action necessary to save the country from the abyss is severely constrained. It is not even clear that its own backbenchers appreciate what needs to be done.

The other side of the coin is that an Opposition with the scent of blood in its nostrils is doing everything in its power to make it impossible for the Government to act.

In normal times it would be hard to blame Fine Gael and Labour from attempting to derive maximum advantage from Fianna Fáil’s woes. There is not a shadow of doubt that if Fianna Fáil was now in opposition it would be every bit as negative and probably far worse. The party’s record during its last period on the opposition benches in the mid-1990s is testament to that.

The critical point, though, is that these are not normal times but the very worst of times, and they demand an extraordinary response from all the parties in the Dáil. So far none of them have risen to the occasion. The real danger for the country is that they will remain enmeshed in the ritual quarrel of government and opposition while the roof caves in.

Fine Gael and Labour believe that the Government’s decision to introduce the bank guarantee scheme, exposing the taxpayer to potential liabilities of tens of billions of euro, was influenced by Fianna Fáil’s relationship with the developers lobby, as epitomised by the Galway tent. It is that belief that has fuelled the angry exchanges in the Dáil.

The Opposition parties are convinced that the Government is on its last legs and that it can be forced from office with one last push.

While the Green Party is clearly getting uncomfortable, it will take some extraordinary revelation to force it to pull the plug on the Coalition.

That leaves the country in the worst of all possible worlds, locked in a political stalemate that is making a dire situation worse.

One way out of the morass would be an early election that would focus public debate on the real choices facing the country. Whatever political configuration an election threw up would be far better than a continuation of the dismal 30th Dáil that has proven itself so incapable of handling the crash.

The alternative is the formation of a national government that might have a chance of building a consensus about how to face into the storm. The phoney arguments suggesting that serious spending cuts and real tax increases can somehow be avoided could be put to bed once and for all and the best talents in the Dáil deployed in the national interest.

However, there are huge obstacles in the way of either alternative.

Fianna Fáil will do everything it can to avoid an election, with at least half of its TDs facing the prospect of losing their seats.

As long as the Greens remain loyal to the Coalition, and there is no sign of that changing, an election can be avoided.

The national government alternative would involve the Opposition parties assuming some of the responsibility for the economic mess created by Fianna Fáil’s profligate spending policies of the past 10 years. It would also involve them implementing the bank guarantee scheme which they now believe was a set-up to protect a rogue bank. Neither of the main Opposition parties is in any mood to follow that course.

The problem is that unless one or other of the unthinkable options are adopted, the outlook for the country is dire.

All the banks may have to be taken into State ownership and the EU will probably be forced to step in to take control of the Irish economy in order to protect the euro. The rescue prescription from Brussels will involve the kind of spending cuts that will put the €2 billion savings plan in the halfpenny place and will, incidentally, expose the hollowness of the notion that some magical social solidarity pact can act as an alternative.

As a result of 10 years of Bertieism the country is simply spending far more than it can afford and if we do not make the cuts ourselves others will make far more savage ones for us. The problem with social partnership is that it has eroded the ability of politicians to make the kind of decisions for which they were elected.

The banking system has failed the Irish people; if the political system now fails them there is no knowing what rough beasts may slouch out of the shadows.

It would be sad and ironic that, having just celebrated the 90th anniversary of the First Dáil, the 30th Dáil was to bring democracy into disrepute by failing in its duty to provide the kind of government the people desperately need.