A LONG TIME IN POLITICS
British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once remarked that a week is a long time in politics. Indeed. And three months can be an eternity. On December 1st last Brian Cowen’s government seemed on the ropes. The recession was biting savagely, negotiations on cost cutting with the public sector unions had ended in fiasco and a savage, benefit and wage slashing budget had become inevitable. Fianna Fail was in the doldrums in the opinion polls, trailing its chief rival, Fine Gael, by a wide margin.
Three months later, the scene looks different. The budget was successfully navigated. There may be disruption ahead in the public sector, still smarting over the pay cuts, but the issue does not appear to have caught fire. There has been only muted reaction from those affected by the welfare cuts. Overall the public mood has been one of relief that the draconian budget proved less so than feared. There are some signs of economic recovery, though the signals are mixed. International opinion, deeply sceptical beforehand that the government would take the necessary measures, has been fulsome in its praise. The cost of borrowing (for it has not stopped – but continues at $400 million per week) to keep the country afloat has even reduced slightly.
Ireland is now something of a darling of the international economic press. There are no more analogies with Iceland. The new EU bad boy is Greece, where a new government discovered its predecessor had been economical with the truth where the public finances were concerned. Suddenly there are fears for the stability of the Euro, with the participating countries (which do not include Britain) now divided into two – those who practice economic and financial prudence and those who do not, but run huge fiscal deficits. Ireland currently occupies a grey area in the middle; having fallen from grace we appear to be bouncing back up, thanks to the government’s firm actions. Some commentators have even begun to replace Ireland with Italy in the “PIGS” group alongside Portugal, Greece and Spain (“PIGS” was the unflattering acronym used in Brussels to identify the four “poorer” countries receiving special subsidies from the EU before the – much poorer – Central Europeans were admitted. It stuck in the Euro era to identify the fiscally weaker members).
These are still early days. The immediate concern when the Greek crisis broke was to cobble together a short term solution to head off any possible domino effect were Greece to default on an early maturing $30 billion debt, threatening next up Portugal and Spain. Any lasting solution to the Eurozone’s problems will probably feature the major paymaster, Germany – which will have to do most of any necessary bailing out – exerting some control over other Eurozone members’ budgets. Watch this space.
Domestically, also, things may be looking up politically for the government. Last year’s by-election and local election losses and the depths to which Fianna Fail slumped in the polls (trailing Labour at one point) represented the nadir. Since then there has been some recovery but the party has continued to languish far behind Fine Gael in popular support. However, even allowing for an expected upturn in support after mid-term disaffection, and even possible brownie points for acting tough, the odds have been squarely on a change of government at the next election (which must take place by June 2012 ). The electorate continues to place the political blame for the economic collapse firmly on the government and on Fianna Fail in particular. The coalition partner, the Greens, which was decimated in the local elections, has stuck with Fianna Fail on the Benjamin Franklin maxim that if they don’t hang together, they’ll hang separately.
The scenery changed in the second week in February with the departure from active politics of the high profile Fine Gael TD, George Lee. Lee, the former economic correspondent for the national broadcaster RTE, was elected to the Dail in a by-election only last June, gaining a whopping 53% of the vote. His declared aim was to do something about Ireland’s dreadful economic situation. His resignation, from both his seat and his membership of Fine Gael, after just 8 months has been accompanied by ill feeling and recrimination. Lee declared he was quitting through frustration at his inability to achieve anything and at his treatment at the hands of Fine Gael, which had ignored or sidelined his talents and expertise. Fine Gael’s reaction has been a circling of the wagons and closing of the ranks behind leader Enda Kenny. They, and many neutral observers from the media, have focussed on the shortness of the period allowed by Lee to make an impact, and the opportunities on offer to him, which were his to develop. Some have asked what, in any event, he could have hoped to achieve in the short term by joining the opposition.
It’s a debate in which there can be no winners but at least one loser. Enda Kenny was already under fire for two recent less than impressive media appearances (in one of which he stumbled over his attitude to forming, hypothetically, a government involving Sinn Fein). Having brought Fine Gael back from near electoral oblivion in 2002 to a credible alternative party of government in 2007 (how many remember how close he came to government then?), and having since built up an impressive lead in the polls, there was a high level of agreement among pundits that, barring something major, Enda Kenny was set fair to become Ireland’s next Taoiseach. The Lee affair, and the fallout from it, together with the media performances, have now raised doubts. Could he not have handled, and harnessed, Lee better? For the moment criticism is muted but if the next few months see Fianna Fail gain an electoral “bounce”, for whatever reason, then the mutterings against Enda are likely to increase and the Lee affair is likely to surface again. Whatever happens, Fine Gael have been damaged; it remains to be seen by how much.
In retrospect the Lee episode was a distraction. His election came at the high watermark of public disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation. Much of the population were in denial and were seeking scapegoats or an instant solution. Lee was seen as someone untainted and determined to do something to put it right. His throwing in of the towel so soon has come as a shock. Yet the period since June last has seen some progress towards finding a way out of the economic morass, not least in the growing public recognition of the seriousness of the situation and what needs to be done. It would be unfortunate were Lee’s departure to affect this. Our troubles are the outcome of a reckless property bubble in tandem with an international economic recession. Like other economic bubbles ours will have to work itself out, with considerable temporary pain. There’s no way to avoid this. And, as we now know, Ireland is not the worst.
Greece, equally recklessly, hid the truth until it was almost too late. Let us hope it can be rescued. Timeo Danaos….?