Monday, 9 May 2016

Fine Gael thought they had the keys to the kingdom. Now they have the weakest government in the history of the state.

"I made this cabinet all on my own."

Politicos love a good narrative. So here's one that was very much in vogue this time six months ago - Fine Gael, after a tumultuous 2014 which saw the resignation of a cabinet minister, a cabinet reshuffle, under-performance at the local elections and which ended with a series of mass anti-Water Charges protests, had ridden the storm. 2015 was a year of steady growth in Fine Gael's poll numbers and exponential growth in the country's GDP figures and tax take numbers. With their five years of austerity vindicated by a resurgent economic recovery and by left-wing upstarts Syriza's fruitless attempts at renegotiating their own austerity programme in Greece, Fine Gael were awaiting the electorate's sweet embrace. 

I might have embellished that account somewhat but it's not very far from the truth. After Budget 2016 was delivered there was an air of infallibility about Fine Gael. They had triumphed. The country was back on its feet and they were going to be rewarded accordingly. As Enda Kenny celebrated 40 years as a TD in November, attention turned to how he was on the cusp of making history in becoming the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected Taoiseach in consecutive elections. A snap election was contemplated to capitalise on Fine Gael's roaring success. Just before Christmas Frank Flannery predicted Fine Gael could grab an overall majority. Oh what a distant memory that all seems. To paraphrase Brendan Howlin - "Who speaks of overall majorities now?"

Dissecting just what has gone wrong with Fine Gael in the last 6 months seems, on the face of it, to be an easy enough task. They desperately underestimated the continuing resentment towards the government’s austerity policies over the last five years, they desperately overestimated the rhetorical power of their election message(s) (Chaos vs Stability, Keep the recovery going, etc.) and, to compound all that, they endured a brutal election campaign pock-marked by a series of gaffes from senior figures. The awaited electoral embrace never materialised. Enda Kenny is indeed the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected as Taoiseach for a consecutive term and Fine Gael remain the largest party in the Dáil but, oh, what a Pyrrhic victory it is.

The government Fine Gael have managed to cobble together, it featuring no less than nine independents (and three of them occupying cabinet positions) is, for my money, the weakest in the history of the state. Never has the leading government party been so sparsely populated in terms of Dáil seats, never has a government had to rely on more than four independents to prop itself up and never have we had a Taoiseach elected whom we know will not be leading their party into the next election. 

Never, most significantly, have we had a government so utterly beholden to an opposition party. The concessions Fianna Fáil managed to wrestle from Fine Gael in their negotiations for facilitating a Fine Gael minority government, from postponing the water charges to abandoning plans to scrap USC, must be galling to a party who only six months ago thought they could become Ireland's next natural party of government. The  concessions mean that the programme for government might actually better resemble Fianna Fáil's election manifesto than Fine Gael's. While Fianna Fáil have agreed in principle to abstain or vote against any motions of no confidence in this government, it remains to be seen how watertight this actually is. There's no doubt in my mind that Fianna Fáil could exploit any crisis the government might face, be it in housing, health or anything else, and, with that innocent, "who me?" look Micheál Martin has perfected, topple this government at the opportune moment innocently citing 'the will of the people' as the reason for doing so. Michael McGrath last week boldly proclaimed, "Never again will an opposition party have as much influence as Fianna Fáil will in the current Dáil". It'd be hard to disagree with him.

And what of the independents? They're not propping up this government for free. They've each been given promises, assurances and sweeteners to tie them down. The Sunday Business Post reports that "startling promises" have been made to independents on "housing, homelessness, mortgage arrears and health." When you consider however that this is a disparate (geographically and ideologically) band of independents -  from liberal, South Dublin based Katherine Zappone to conservative, Roscommon based Denis Naughten - it remains to be seen how Fine Gael can keep them all satisfied. From abortion to housing to economic development, many of the independents have opposing views. The whip system ensures that any party backbenchers who oppose a certain policy have a simple choice; comply with the government or you're gone. Most of the time they comply. But there is no leash constraining independents and if they disagree with a policy the government are wants to pursue it makes life very difficult indeed. 

The biggest pitfall for this government then, I feel, is that it will be utterly unable to act decisively in times of crisis. Think back to the last government and the myriad of crises they dealt with. Think back to the Savita Halappanavar case in 2012. Her death during childbirth sparked outrage, public demonstration and a renewed debate on Ireland's hideous abortion laws. This compelled the government to legislate for the X Case and pass the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act which allowed for abortion when the mother's life is at risk (including through risk of suicide). Fine Gael shed four TDs - Lucinda Creighton, Peter Matthews, Terence Flanagan and Billy Timmins - when they defied the whip and refused to vote for the legislation. But it was ok. This was the government with the biggest parliamentary majority in Irish history. By that stage, Labour had already lost Tommy Broughan, Roisin Shorthall and Colm Keveaney while Fine Gael had lost the aforementioned Naughten. They could roll with the punches. They could make an example of dissenters. Fine Gael do not enjoy such a luxury this time. While such trying odds might help foster a siege mentality within the party's TDs, it's the nine independents they have to worry about. What happens if another abortion controversy strikes and the government can't act because certain independents oppose any action? What if the housing crisis continues to deteriorate, homelessness continues to increase and the government is under pressure to increase the supply of social housing but can't because one of the independents faces protests in their constituency regarding their construction?  The last government lost nine TDs over the course of its five years in charge. This government, with nine independents propping it up, needs to lose only one and it could mean lights out. 

Enda Kenny will now have to sit on the government benches with Shane Ross, a man who only a few weeks ago referred to him as a political corpse. When he looks around he'll see Finian McGrath, someone who admits to never paying the water charges and who once propped up a Fianna Fáil led government but left when he disagreed with their response to the economic crash of 2008. Nearby, he might notice Denis Naughten who left Fine Gael in 2011 when they went back on their pre-election promise to not close the A&E at Roscommon Hospital. Opposite him, smiling presumably, will be Micheál Martin. In his back pocket he now has the key to the kingdom. All Martin has to is sit and wait for the right moment, when enough of the government's independent TDs are squiriming and when public pressure is mounting and *puff*, there goes Enda's government. Never before have we had a Fine Gael leader elected as Taoiseach for consecutive terms and never before has any Taoiseach faced such dire odds. 

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