TEA PARTY POLITICS – IRISH STYLE ?
The very latest polls suggest that in the next election the three major centre parties would be unable to muster a majority between them, while Sinn Fein’s support continues to grow, and the strongest support is for independents of various hues (chiefly left-wing).
Most worrying is that the trend in the polls evident throughout 2014 resembles the melt down in Fianna Fail’s support before 2011. One or two polls could be dismissed but not the last half dozen which have seen support for Labour collapse and support for Fine Gael also decline sharply. As I write there is nothing to suggest, beyond pious hopes, that this will change. And, where public opinion has actually been tested – in the local and European elections in mid-year and in subsequent by elections – the poll figures have been, ominously, validated.
The Government must be asking itself “Where did it all go wrong?” The most secure government in the country’s history has imploded so severely in 2014 that its chances of being returned to power seem slim.
Nobody said it would be easy – three years of unremitting austerity with tax increases and benefit cuts had severely dented the Government’s popularity. However, in the absence of any credible alternative, with the economic corner turning, and with the political kudos for successfully seeing off the Troika, 2014 promised much. Factoring in the gradual waning of mid-term unpopularity and two possibly favourable giveaway budgets before a 2016 election, the prospects last January seemed reasonably positive.
That at least was the theory. And, in the macro sense, things went according to plan. The economy bounced back big time and at a surprising pace. It appeared the Government had got it right – austerity worked. Debt targets were met, austerity seemed to be ending and there was talk of a billion to play around with in October’s budget with the promise of more to come. Twelve months on, the Government is in a shambles, with support for both coalition parties seriously degraded.
In retrospect, in political terms, the Troika Era was an extended honeymoon period for the Government. All the nasty cuts and new taxes could be blamed on the Troika and Fianna Fail, which had let them in. A type of Dunkirk spirit obtained in which the public, by and large, put up and shut up. People did not take to the streets. However, once the Troika departed, it was end of honeymoon and back to the kitchen sink.
While national bankruptcy had been averted, the country’s finances repaired, and “core” welfare benefits preserved, aspects of the cutbacks, and the scattergun approach to economising, particularly in the small print of measures taken, proved toxic. Cuts yielding little in savings emasculated many small services and programmes which helped the sick, disadvantaged and politically powerless. The monies could have been saved elsewhere by targeting some of those “core” heavy hitters through, e.g. means testing child benefit or even slightly raising income tax and blaming the Troika. It might have worked, though try explaining that to people losing out on a carer or a respite or other grant . The resulting drip feed of public disillusionment and simmering anger was not perceived officially at the time.
This was compounded by a succession of tactical and strategic blunders by the Government during 2014, culminating in the fiasco over Irish Water, an issue that rumbled on throughout the year before coming to a head in November. The blunders had a cumulative effect. Just about every issue and crisis during the year was mishandled, exploding the myth of government competence.
Early on a furore over the level of salaries paid to the top executives of some state funded charities brought down Fine Gael’s ablest political strategist Frank Flannery .The Garda Whistle-blower controversy, complemented by allegations of bugging the Garda Ombudsman’s office, morphed into a major crisis that saw the removal of the Justice Minister, his Department’s top official, and the Garda Commissioner.
Soon after, an obvious populist proposal to give free GP care to the under sixes ran foul of public outrage at a parallel attempt to save money by reviewing – and withdrawing – thousands of discretionary medical cards issued to genuinely sick people. The official protestation that the under-sixes proposal was the first stage of a roll out of universal free GP access fooled no one, with medical experts pointing out that this was to prioritise the healthiest ahead of those in greater medical need. The medical card fiasco was in part responsible for the Government’s lamentable showing in the mid-year elections, which prompted the resignation of Labour leader Gilmore and the kicking sideways of accident prone Health Minister Reilly.
An attempt to relaunch the Government’s Programme in July briefly held promise, with Ministers talking up the state of the economy and generating expectations of a giveaway October budget. In the event they oversold, with the budget’s modest provisions satisfying nobody. But even before that the Government’s credibility was further shredded by the McNulty Affair in which the Fine Gael candidate for a Senate vacancy lost after revelations that he had been nominated to a state board at the last minute in order to boost his election credentials. Small potatoes stuff but many saw it as the type of stroke politics and political sleaze associated with Fianna Fail.
Next came the revelation that the junior Environment Minister was employing, as his driver, a fellow party member who was also a government appointed director of the new Irish Water quango. Stroke politics with a vengeance. A hasty Government announcement of a new system ( a “portal”) governing public appointments to state boards – long a traditional form of patronage for rewarding loyal supporters – was greeted with derision.
Cue Irish Water – a slow burner. The Troika proposed in 2010 that Ireland join the rest of her EU partners ( and help bridge the budget deficit) by charging for water. Fianna Fail, outgoing, had bought into this, and the new Government did likewise. A simple flat-rate charge would have sufficed while all aspects of the matter were examined, the issue complicated by the legacy factor – the existing infrastructure is inadequate, antique (some pipes date from the Nineteenth Century) and defective (with up to 40% of water lost through leakage).
In a catastrophic political misjudgement Irish Water was established, with start-up costs of several hundred million dollars, much of this for consultants, an acknowledged level of over manning from the start and with some contractual systems locked into place until 2027. Public anger was compounded by the revelation of a bonus culture in salaries, including those underperforming. When the likely hefty scale of the charges became known, the issue boiled over. Street protests culminated in a massive demonstration by over 100, 000 in November. The left had a field day.
The issue became a lightning rod for discontent, with the middle classes joining in. The Government blustered, then caved in, slashing and deferring the proposed charges. Those opposed remain adamant. Right now the Government is hunkering down and keeping fingers crossed but such is the degree of public disenchantment that all the mainstream parties are running for cover. Is this the beginning of tea-party politics, Irish –style?