Wallace affair exposes shallow nature of Opposition


INSIDE POLITICS:The frivolous, populist posturing of much of what passes for Dáil Opposition gives Fianna Fáil an opportunity

THE VACUOUS nature of so much of what passes for Opposition politics in Ireland was illustrated by the reaction of the technical group to the Mick Wallace affair.

The very people who generate so much sound and fury in the Dáil day in and day out about the ills that beset Irish society were left speechless when one of their own members found himself with some serious questions to answer.

Luke Ming Flanagan was honest enough to admit that his reaction would have been very different if a member of Fianna Fáil had been in the firing line. “I suppose I am being a bit of a hypocrite. There’s no point denying it. It is that bit more difficult when you do know the person and I feel I know him quite well and I get on very well with him,” he told Seán Moncrieff on Newstalk.

While it is a natural human reaction to have sympathy for a friend in trouble, the fact that the normally righteous members of the technical group could not see the bigger picture about standards in public life doesn’t say much for their judgment.

It is consistent, though, with a frivolous approach to politics that allows people who regard themselves as socialists to oppose a property tax, encourage people to break the law and lead by example in breaking it themselves.

At a deeper level it exposes the shallowness of much of what passes for Opposition in the Dáil. A lot of it is simply populist posturing designed to encourage opposition to whatever the Government of the day proposes, taking no account of the prevailing economic circumstances.

The behaviour of Sinn Féin and most of the technical group of TDs during the recent referendum debate typified this approach to politics but it certainly didn’t begin with them.

In the last couple of years before the watershed election of 2011, Fine Gael and the Labour Party regularly behaved in a similar manner and conveyed the impression that there was some easy way out of the appalling economic crisis facing the country.

Much of the current disillusionment with the Coalition can be traced to the way the public was encouraged to believe that bondholders could be burned, mortgage arrears forgiven and our EU partners told where to get off.

One of the reasons why Labour is now suffering a much greater loss of support than Fine Gael is that its Opposition rhetoric was the more aggressive and its promises more unrealistic. Those voters ill-informed enough to believe that it would be Labour’s way rather than Frankfurt’s way are the ones now most likely to be swayed by Sinn Féin’s encouragement to follow the Greek road of defiance rather than facing the reality of living within the relatively benign bailout terms.

With Sinn Féin and most of the technical group of TDs pursuing populist fantasy politics, there is an opportunity for Fianna Fáil to refashion itself as a responsible party of government. Living down its past mistakes will remain a huge problem. While there is no escaping the party’s irresponsible behaviour in power between 1997 and 2007, over time there may be some acknowledgement that it did its best to wrestle the country back from the brink in its final two years in office.

It is a moot point whether Fianna Fáil suffered such a crushing defeat last year because of the gross mistakes during the boom or its efforts to impose economic discipline from 2008 onwards. The task facing the party now is to resist the temptation of competing in the indignation stakes on the Opposition side of the Dáil.

Being seen to put the national interest first is the only way to restore the party’s reputation. Micheál Martin managed this feat in the fiscal treaty referendum and it was an important step on the road to recovery.

The future is impossible to predict but the old maxim that in politics the unexpected always happens should be borne in mind.

The prevailing wisdom is that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will serve out its full term with the next general election taking place in 2016 but the pressure of events will have something to say about that.

With the future of the euro again in the melting pot, big decisions on the future direction of the EU will have to be made over the next year. They will pose a real challenge to the political system and that is assuming a benign scenario in which the common currency survives.

If it does not, the consequent economic catastrophe will test Irish democracy to the limit but hopefully a challenge on that scale will not arise.

Of course, it is not only the politicians who are responsible for the health and quality of our political system. Ultimately the people decide who should serve in Dáil Éireann and if the voters don’t require high ethical standards from their TDs or reward those who make a serious contribution to politics they have to accept the consequences.

The lesson of the fiscal treaty referendum is that a majority of people can be persuaded to make a realistic assessment of the country’s best long-term interests, but only if a determined effort is made to educate them as to the choices available.

By contrast, the indulgent and wildly over-optimistic public and media approach to the prospects of the Irish team in Euro 2012 revealed a weakness in the Irish character.

Roy Keane’s admonition to the country’s soccer supporters to look reality in the face could well apply to politics. A singsong is no substitute for victory, just as political rhetoric is no substitute for real achievement.

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