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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Our government can no longer be held hostage by vested interests


I HAVE a gathering sense of optimism about the possibilities for the next government. It may be short-lived.
It must deliver one budget to justify its formation. If it delivers more than two, it will exceed expectations. Unquestionably, it will be messy.
Career-long crisis commentators will have a field day as inevitably some Independents who might sign up initially peel away.

There will be down-to the-wire negotiations within government and across the Dáil. And it will do fine, thank you. In fact, it is exactly what the country needs.
The irony is that a minority Fine Gael-led government — but called another name — with Independents either within government or effectively on the government benches, and supported externally on terms and conditions by Fianna Fáil, by default would be an ideal government for a period.

Firstly, it would ensure relatively little is done and secondly it would ensure that what is done is examined thoroughly. That would be new politics indeed. The fact that relatively little is attempted ensures there is at least an attempt to prioritise key issues. The process of required political inclusion could leave behind a permanently more empowered Dáil.
Blather talked about needing a “real” government now to sort immediate problems of homelessness and health is analysis at its most incontinent.
We have arrived at a housing crisis again via incoherent policies thrown pell-mell from the Customs House by ministers with clear majorities, which put them beyond challenge.

A continuous, ongoing budgetary crisis within health and a partial crisis within the health system itself is because its constituent parts depend on and prey upon crisis to leverage more resources.
A government with a clear majority would be hostage to public servants in the health services and elsewhere determined to translate political commitment to better public services into higher pay and pensions for public servants.

Majorities, especially large ones, as easily make governments weak rather than strong.
This economy is, in part, overheating already. The outgoing government, which gave us four years of fiscal prudence, threw caution to the wind, betting the house on a spending splurge in its final year — in a bid to win an election.
Old codgers in Fianna Fáil could have told them “it’s not enough to send the cheque in the post, you have to sweet talk them as well”. But that’s water under the bridge now. It is why we are where we are.

On Dáil reform, I am not misty-eyed about what it can deliver or the motives of those now advocating it most fervently. A more accountable government, however, is one step in ensuring that policy decisions are better over time.
By extension, and this is critical, it may prompt ministers whose feet are held to the fire more constantly ensure that their senior civil and public servants are equally held to account.
It is essential the 32nd Dáil, before it approves the nomination of a Taoiseach, hears evidence from senior officials in Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and — crucially — Health, on where spending is this year compared to projections.

No programme for government is worth the paper it is written on if it not fiscally informed. I sense that the full facts about health spending in the year to date and their political significance are not publicly or politically understood.
Estimable members of the commentariat have called for a grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Reading last Sunday’s papers I gave up counting how many. Now, the great chatter from the same sources is for those parties to talk, talk soon, talk about anything, but, at least talk. I am sure they will, but there’s no immediate hurry.
Politics is at its worst when it runs — trying, but failing, to catch-up with a breathless news cycle whose enduring lasting agenda is more news, news about anything, and news for the sake of news.

It is — as it should be — that these matters are taken slowly, that movement comes when it is prepared for, and that leaders worthy of the appellation are sufficiently sanguine to allow any news cycle pass but remain unperturbed. Those who cannot do it now certainly won’t be able to do it in government, when the heat is on.

The late Joe Walsh, many times minister for agriculture, was a model of the sort. A man of few words with a laconic disinterest in the media, he was always ready for the hard road.
When actual crisis, as distinct from political fuss, arrived with foot-and-mouth disease, he was the man whose hour had come. In hindsight you appreciate the worth of politicians like that more than you necessarily did at the time.

A key learning of the general election, one obscured by focus on the unhappy slogan “Keep The Recovery Going” is the lack of connection with, and, more ominously, alienation from a globalised, digitalised world. The advent of software hasn’t softened the subjection of man to machine, begun at the industrial revolution — it has accelerated it.
The radical left and right depend fundamentally on their appeal to alienation from the mainstream. That mainstream is now an economic and information superhighway that leaves people looking in, seeking access through flickering screens.

Other forms of value, including community, a sense of denomination in any coin except cash, is lost.
There was a sense not just that the recovery isn’t lifting me, it is that this society isn’t including me.
A widely-based government has an opportunity to seize momentum and the mood of the moment. When a government is likely formed next month, weeks after Easter Sunday’s centenary ceremonies, its programme can be shaped by commemoration.
The Republic can over the life of an even short-lived, sometimes messy 32nd Dáil become more accountable institutionally and avoid being held hostage by voracious vested interests out to gouge scarce resources on a grand scale.

It can rebuild bridges with communities and give back a lasting sense of pride with sustained investment in the Arts, Heritage, and Sport.
Here, relatively small sums go a very, very long way and do lasting good. Creating a new department of Community and Culture including functions like arts, sport, heritage, Gaeltacht, community affairs, and broadcasting, would create institutional ballast on a scale capable of delivering over time.

The current arrangements for all now are piecemeal, and destined to remain peripheral. No single step is a panacea, but every journey is a series consisting of specific milestones.
Broadening the base is imperative politically and a national need. People want to be brought in, to be included.

I hope independents have an opportunity to serve in government. There is scope for the Taoiseach to appoint up to two non-politicians to cabinet as senators.

Where there is a will, there is a way. In contrast, a grand coalition would be a round tower project, intended to preserve a few important people and their valuables for a short time only.
Gerard Howlin