Year Four of the Government and several recent developments, none catastrophic individually but taken together having the potential to do serious political damage, have begun to cast ripples on the domestic political scene as the Coalition enters its penultimate year.
The general assumption up to now has been that Fine Gael will remain as the largest political party after the next election and will probably form the next government. It’s a measure of how far – and fast – we have travelled since the Troika Era that, at a time when the corner appears to have been turned economically, with the latest indicators all now firmly positive and the government loudly claiming all the credit, the first sprouting of political doubts about this scenario have appeared.
Fine Gael is still the firm favourite and speculation has been and remains whether it will achieve an absolute majority (unlikely), continue in coalition with a much smaller Labour party (most likely), or, in the event of significant reductions in support for both parties, form part of some wider, rainbow-style coalition. With eight fewer seats next time round, and given the likelihood of some pendulum swing, it’s going to be a lot tighter in any event.
The role of independents could become a factor here. With “ Don’t Knows” and undecided polling consistently above 20% since the 2011 election, the actual number of independent deputies was boosted significantly when a group of T.D.s who opposed last year’s abortion legislation were expelled from Fine Gael. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has eschewed the common practice of allowing the dissidents back before the next general election by making clear that the dissidents are out – period. There have been rumours and media speculation that the dissidents might join with others to form a new political party but nothing concrete has emerged – hardly surprising given the fate of most Irish splinter or dissident parties.
Recently the odds on a new party may have shortened slightly. The clear election tactics of both government parties next time round– whether they contest individually or in tandem – will be to claim to have saved the nation economically, combining this with a few careful sweeteners in the next two budgets and promises of more to come. A cautionary note: as several previous governments have learned to their cost, campaigning on a platform of having taken tough resolute action “ in the national interest” can backfire, particularly if the actions taken have hit the electorate hard in their pockets, certainly the case this time round.
The other clear if unstated tactic should be to avoid banana skins. 2014 has already seen this particular aspiration fail several times. Albert Reynolds’ wry observation that the small hurdles trip politicians up may well get another airing. The latest of several banana skins, involving the Rehab charity, is potentially the most harmful to Fine Gael, not just because of the effect on the party’s image, but also because Fine Gael’s most important political strategist, Frank Flannery, the Karl Rove of Irish politics, has become a political casualty.
Flannery, whose Fine Gael roots go back to the 1980s, when, with Garret Fitzgerald, he sought to instil professionalism into the party, is credited with rescuing and reorganising Fine Gael after the debacle in 2002. He was the party’s Director of Elections, a Trustee and a close adviser to Taoiseach Enda Kenny. On March 10 he resigned his posts. He also resigned from the board of Rehab, the organisation of which he had been chief executive for twenty five years until 2006.
The Rehab affair has been simmering away since late last year. The Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC), tasked with scrutinising how taxpayers money is spent, revealed before Christmas that a number of high profile charities, most notably the largely state – funded Central Remedial Clinic, had been drawing on accumulated reserves to top up significantly the salaries and pensions of their already well paid leading executives. In the case of the CRC the top up more than doubled the Chief Executive’s $150,000 salary. There was public outrage at the thought that charitable donations and taxpayers’ money were involved. Public donations to many charities plummeted and attention focussed on top salary levels throughout the voluntary sector.
Most chief executives published their incomes but the chief executive of the Rehab group demurred, on the grounds that Rehab, though in receipt of considerable state funding, had a significant commercial arm as well and that her salary had been paid from commercially generated income rather than by the taxpayer. Predictably this did not wash with the public, and eventually Rehab disclosed that its chief executive was paid roughly $330,000, more than the Taoiseach ( and Barack Obama!). Rehab further revealed that eleven of her colleagues are paid over $130,000 each.
Exchanges between the PAC and Rehab continue. The only head to roll thus far has been that of Frank Flannery, who built up the Rehab group from relatively small beginnings to a charitable business with annual turnover of $250 million. The details of his successor’s salary, his continued involvement as a director, and revelations of his lobbying activities on Rehabs behalf, proved too much political baggage for Enda Kenny, prompting Flannery’s resignation. The Taoiseach’s ruthlessness has been noted, but the general verdict has been that, politically, Flannery will be very difficult to replace. Astute move or tactical error? Time will tell.
The Flannery affair came hard on the heels of several other banana skins – enmeshed controversies which also simmer on and which could yet bring down Justice Minister Alan Shatter and /or Garda Commissioner Callinan. First up were allegations that the offices of the Garda Ombudsman ( which investigates all complaints about the Gardai) had been bugged with suggestions that the bugging could only have been done by some major or official agency. It was not long before rumours began and accusations were bandied about. Minister and Commissioner were adamant in denying that the Gardai had anything to do with bugging. A retired high court judge is to investigate and report before Easter.
Then came the Garda Whistle-blower controversy and the reigniting of the so-called penalty points for drivers issue ( points are cumulative and can lead to loss of licence). Allegations surfaced last year that the Gardai’s discretionary powers to review and cancel points had, in a small percentage of cases, been abused. The recent recommendations made by the Garda Inspectorate, to eliminate any possible abuse, have been fully accepted by the Government. However, the suspicion that in some cases at least the rules could or might be bent without due cause has left a sour taste with the public and has done nothing for the reputation of the Gardai as a whole.
The penalty point revelations were part of the material made public by two Garda whistle-blowers, one still in the force. Whatever about whistle blowing in the private sector, it is a different matter when the national police force is involved. The controversy rumbles on with Minister and Commissioner eye-balling the two whistle blowers. More sour taste. More heads to roll?
Normal politics is back – with a vengeance.