2011 – 2016, HALFWAY THERE 1306 LII

2011- 2016: HALFWAY THERE

The Government is now over 800 days in office and is either at or past its half-way point , with an election scheduled, at the latest, for the spring of 2016. While nothing is certain in politics, the history of Irish governments, particularly coalitions, would suggest that a full five year term is unlikely. However, this time may be different. Provided the coalition does not implode, a full or nearly full term seems in its best interests.

Only three governments have actually lasted the full five years, roughly 1800 days plus – De Valera’s administration 1938 – 1943, and the two Fianna Fail governments headed by Bertie Ahern from 1997-2007. Some other governments were terminated early, by decision of the Taoiseach – for it is his call – with De Valera, in particular, either tactically astute or just lucky by calling snap elections on three occasions and returning with enhanced majorities each time.

The fate of coalitions involving Fine Gael and Labour have been less than stellar with some collapsing after defeats in the Dail, and none securing re-election. It could be argued that the defeats in 1977 and 1987 were against the background of particularly difficult economic circumstances home and abroad, and that the opposition on both occasions, Fianna Fail, bought the elections, most extravagantly in 1977, undermining public finances for a generation through tinkering with the tax base to win votes.

What chance then for re-election on or before 2016, after the enforced austerity of the present administration, grappling with the disaster inherited from its predecessor? Blaming the last lot will not suffice for an increasingly fickle electorate, with opinion polls demonstrating one consistent trend – the high level of “ undecided “ voters. The government now “owns” the economic situation and will be judged above all on how it copes with that situation. It is also likely to be taken to task on its record in fulfilling its election manifesto, where its brave talk of reform will be scrutinised. In either scenario, hanging on offers the best chance.

The first political priority of the government has been to wriggle out from under the Troika, and chalk up that achievement. Indeed at the moment the progress made in this regard represents one of the few fig leaves proffered by Labour over the austerity measures taken to carry out the Troika’s ukase. On the present course, if government claims are to be believed, and barring something unforeseen, the Troika’s requirements will be met some time next year, whatever about the state of the economy, and Ireland will “regain its economic independence” – code for continuing to borrow to fund the state, but this time on the financial markets.

There are a lot of ifs and pious hopes in this. Last time I commented on the current woes of Labour, getting it in the neck for the necessary but unpopular measures taken to tackle the problem of the current budget deficit. How matters will pan out in the next few months remains to be seen, with a number of factors, not just economic, coming into play. First up will be the showdown with the public sector unions, where the government seems determined to hold firm on securing cuts from July in the public sector pay bill. At best there will be residual resentment, at worst some industrial unrest, including possible work stoppages.

Apart from the mortgage crisis, where the next six months will show whether the latest sticking plaster approach will work, there remains the possibility of a banana skin on the issue of Abortion, which, in Ireland as elsewhere, continues to generate strong emotions at either extreme, coupled with a more general sense of unease. While there is tacit acceptance in Ireland of abortion as a reality, in the sense that at least 90 women per week giving Irish addresses receive abortions in England, the issue of legislating for abortion domestically, in whatever limited circumstances, is a different matter.

The government is determined to legislate to regularise the constitutional position laid down in the Supreme Court decision in the X case of 1992 which provided for abortion in limited circumstances where there was a real threat to the life of the mother. The battleground is over the inclusion of the threat of suicide, with the Pro-Life lobby arguing strongly against.

As I write, there is a significant clamour for a “ free vote” on the issue, as opposed to the strict discipline of the party whip which the government is advocating. A “free vote” would, of course, leave T.D.s prey to heavy pressure from the Pro-Life lobby in particular. Fianna Fail, which has been making a recovery of sorts in the polls, has thus far stayed its hand on the issue. At the very least there will be a number of defections from Fine Gael on the issue. Could the outcome prove worse?

The next economic milestone for the government is the 2014 Budget, set to be announced on October 15. The talk heretofore has been of two more austerity budgets, for 2014 and 2015, but past half way and with the next election already in view, expect some nuancing on this. There are already hints that, following the deal on debt restructuring secured earlier in the year, and references to better than expected fiscal returns, the government will have some “flexibility” in October, with the figure of one billion euro being bandied about.

The government has been at pains to stress that first call for any spare cash will be job creation or further movement towards plugging the unsustainable level of day to day borrowing, so little relief can be expected for 2014. 2015, however, should present differently. For a start the election will be firmly in everyone’s sights, with backbenchers, already worried enough, demanding something positive to offer . To maximise its chances of getting back in the government will have to introduce some sweeteners sufficiently far in advance of any poll for their effects to be felt and to negate the imminent and pending property and water taxes.

There is another factor also. The Centenary of the 1916 Rising will be on 24 April 2016, i.e. just or close after the next election. There are already articles in the media pointing to that anniversary and posing questions as to how far the ideals of 1916 have been or will be achieved. Even allowing for hyperbole, 2016 will be a watershed, a time for taking stock, and no government will want to be criticised for shortcomings in achieving these ideals.

This “Centenary Factor” – though little talked about now – will certainly come into play in terms of the government’s plans as the date nears. On top of the natural desire to secure re-election, there will clearly be a strong desire on the part of the current incumbents to be in power to bask in whatever reflected glory the Rising Centenary generates. It would be bitter sweet indeed to have steered the country out of the economic tsunami only to see a new government strut the stage of the Centenary celebrations. Let us hope, however, that there are no extravagant promises or hostages given to fortune in the process.

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