Things fall apart but Coalition has the centre to hold

 

INSIDE POLITICS: Retaining the moral authority to lead the country out of the morass is critical for the Government

THE CONSTITUENCY revision gave TDs plenty to worry about during the week but the next election will be decided on the basis of far more fundamental developments at home and abroad.

The fate of the euro zone and the Government’s handling of the rapidly changing economic situation will have a far greater impact on the fortunes of all the current members of the Dáil than changes in constituency boundaries.

A collapse of the euro or Ireland’s exit from the currency would plunge the country into a crisis that would make the current “austerity” look like a picnic and would inevitably have a huge impact on the political landscape.

Even assuming that the worst does not happen and the euro zone gradually pulls out of the crisis, the Government still faces a huge challenge because there is no easy way out of the current difficulties.

“How will the centre hold in the face of two or three more years of austerity,” wondered one Government TD. That is something Ministers need to ponder very carefully.

The salutary example of the way in which a range of forces are challenging democratic politics in Greece is something our political leaders need to bear in mind.

A Greek parliament now has a worrying number of extremists of all hues. “It is difficult to find a notable dictator, even among the great butchers of the 20th century, without a steady following in the Greek parliament,” Athens university professor Aristides Hatzis noted during the week.

He also pointed out that the three protagonists from the dreadful television punch-up which marred the Greek election campaign were all elected last Sunday and are now sitting in parliament together.

For all that, the centre held in Greece, if only just. Whether it continues to do so will depend on the discredited politicians of the main Greek parties getting their act together and will also depend on the way the EU-IMF bailout is implemented.

Ireland is in a much stronger position to resist the blandishments of extremists who blame foreigners for our woes and promise instant solutions. For a start, living standards for most people in this country have not been hit remotely as hard as those of the average Greek. We also have a political system and a public service that are not tainted by the kind of endemic corruption that prevails in Greece. While huge errors were made during the Celtic Tiger years, and the political system could certainly do with some reform, it is not systemically corrupt, even if some critics try to portray it that way for their own ends.

However, the economic crisis has led to a crisis of confidence in the political system. The longer the crisis drags on the more disillusioned people will become and the more open they will be to the passionate intensity of those who want to tear the whole edifice down both at national and European level.

The Government is now entering a critical phase in its relationship with the electorate. Having taken office with an overwhelming mandate in February of last year it was given a long honeymoon by voters desperate for change and willing to give the new faces at the top a chance to sort things out.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was largely responsible for the surprising length of that honeymoon. His confident, upbeat manner provided a welcome contrast with what went before and instilled a little bit of optimism that the country could get itself back on the path to recovery. At this stage, though, something more is required because the Government appears to be running out of steam. The media critics who went quiet after a decade denigrating Kenny have re-emerged, sensing that there may be some takers for their old mantra that he is not up to the job.

The next few months will be critical for him and his Government. Whatever happens at European level the Coalition simply has to face making unpalatable decisions at home and it is vital that, no matter how much they hurt, those decisions are seen to be fair.

Considering all the problems it faces the Coalition still has a reasonable level of support. The formulation of the next budget will be the real test of whether it has the nerve to make the right cuts that will benefit the country in the long run rather than the easy ones designed to appease sectoral interests.

The continued protection provided by the Croke Park agreement to the most secure and best-paid segment of the workforce is a worrying sign that easy options will be taken. The agreement is becoming less defensible by the day and could eventually prove to be the millstone around the Coalition’s neck.

The huge pay-offs that went to retiring politicians and senior public servants in the period since the last election had a very negative impact on public opinion and voters will be constantly reminded of them when the list of pensions paid to former politicians gets an outing every few months.

Public indignation about such issues could deter the Government from pressing ahead with serious issues such as the reform of the social welfare system and the introduction of labour activation measures that have been so successful in Germany and Scandinavia.

Retaining the moral authority to lead the country out of the morass is critical for the Coalition. The continuing non-payment of household charges by a significant minority – never mind the illegal bog protests – shows how difficult it is for a government to do the right thing even on relatively minor issues.

The budget in December and the public reaction to it will tell whether the Coalition has the capacity to hold the centre ground and keep the country on the road to recovery.

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