Wake-up call for a new government


A New Minister for Finance, such as Noel Dempsey, might not have such loyalty to past decisions and might be more progressive in terms of ensuring that Budgets favoured the rich rather than the poor slightly less markedly. Charlie McCreevy is very able and deservedly will be a centrepiece of this new Government but, ideally, not in Finance. With regard to Justice, the crucial issue is whether Michael McDowell gets the portfolio. If he doesn't, law reform is likely to languish and the Garda Síochana

Just as we almost sleepwalked into giving Fianna Fáil a near overall majority in the election, we are sleepwalking through a decisive period in the country's political life, distracted by the histrionics surrounding the World Cup. The formation of the government will give shape to the nature of the administration for the next several years. What Fine Gael does today is going to determine whether we have anything resembling a major Opposition party in this new Dáil. What is agreed on structures for Dáil business is going to affect crucially how accountable the exercise of power is going to be.

A few hours after Dr Garret FitzGerald announced his new administration in December 1982, I am proud to recall, I wrote a piece entitled: "How long more are we to suffer this awful government". It wasn't just an attempt at smartness, but a commentary on what I thought (and think) was a crucial mistake made then. It concerned the appointment of Alan Dukes rather than John Bruton as Minister for Finance.

John Bruton had been Minister for Finance in the short-lived Garret Government of July 1981 to February 1982 and he had held the Finance portfolio on the Opposition benches for Fine Gael over the previous two years. He was the crucial linchpin in the new Government's resolve to deal with the mammoth fiscal crisis that then and subsequently almost engulfed the country.

Alan Dukes, in spite of his formidable intellect and background as an economist, did not have the same focus and resolve as John Bruton had with the Finance brief, simply because he hadn't held it. Inevitably, hard decisions were ducked shortly afterwards and the fiscal crisis remained unresolved for far longer than need have been the case. Decisions taken on the formation of a government matter crucially.

Two such decisions matter now. One in relation to Finance and the other in relation to Justice. If Charlie McCreevy remains in Finance, it is likely the heavy right-wing bias of the last government will be perpetuated. It is also likely that loyalty to past decisions will mean the emerging fiscal crisis will not be confronted.

Fine Gael is displaying a resolve and determination now that it has failed to display at any time in the last 15 years. Unfortunately, it is in a cause that will do it probably irreparable damage. The resolve to ignore the mounting crescendo within the party to stop the headlong rush to appoint a leader will undermine the party even within its own diminished band of supporters.

The concern to have a leader and front bench in place right away and to avoid a leadership vacuum on the Opposition benches is understandable. But to alienate so many of its own followers and to act in defiance of a decision of its own conference is to consign the party to internal strife for years to come. Any new leader elected now will be hugely compromised.

Aside from that, Fine Gael seems about to elect a leader, Enda Kenny or Phil Hogan, whose personal qualities are not in contest but whose credibility in terms of policy is at best uncertain. Neither has ever offered a memorable idea on any political issue in their political lifetime. I argued in favour of Enda Kenny for the Fine Gael leadership in January 2001 because I thought his affability would be an effective foil to Bertie Ahern in the run-up to the election. But affability won't do over the long haul.

PHIL Hogan's Core Values (free enterprise plus law and order) stance is a recipe for oblivion. Fine Gael did best when it was left of centre; to move even further to the right now is to invite the extinguishing of the party.

Finally, it was reported in yesterday's Irish Times that Bertie Ahern doesn't like being required to spend up to two hours in the Dáil per week answering questions - i.e. for the pathetic 26 weeks or so that the Dáil meets per year. He wants to get this back to the half hour per week that Tony Blair accords the House of Commons.

It seems that Fianna Fáil and the PDs are lined up to give effect to this wish. The PDs apparently will stand up on the national stadium madness (well, will kneel up on the national stadium madness) but they are prepared to give in on the minor issue of accountability.

The Opposition, to a man and a woman, must ensure this can't happen and whatever misgivings Fine Gael have about doing business with Sinn Féin must be set aside to uphold the meagre scrap of accountability we have.

And, incidentally, isn't it hilarious that Fine Gael, of all parties, is indignant about Sinn Féin having a private army?

Fine Gael was founded on the back of a private army and had as its first leader the head of that private army, Gen Eoin O'Duffy.