THE FINAL THROW OF THE DICE ? 1511 LXXXI

THE FINAL THROW OF THE DICE?

Two tragedies, next year’s budget and uncertainty over the general election date made for an interesting time politically in October. The tragedies in particular brought into focus the fact that there is more to life than politics and economics.

The first was a disastrous fire at a Traveller halting site in south Dublin which claimed the lives of eleven, including some very young children. Public shock at the deplorable living conditions at the site was compounded several days later when a proposed temporary halting site nearby to house those rendered “homeless” by the tragedy was opposed by local residents, who, as I write, continue to block access.

There can be few not already aware of the living conditions of many Travellers, with the attendant implications for social disadvantage; it remains to be seen whether these deaths will prompt remedial action. The stance of the local residents underlines that NIMBYism is alive and well and flourishing in Ireland; and that will be a tough nut to crack. One protester remarked that he didn’t see many hands raised to have Travellers living nearby .

The next day an unarmed Garda was shot dead by a republican dissident when answering a domestic incident in Omeath, near the Border. The murderer used a Glock pistol and critically wounded his partner before killing himself. It transpired that he was out on bail charged with IRA membership. The murder caused outrage and raised questions about the granting of bail, the adequacy of protection for what remains an unarmed police force and the adequacy of policing in Border areas where guns are plentiful and smuggling and organised crime by paramilitaries endemic.

Both issues, writ on a national scale, are likely to be among those to be aired during the forthcoming general election campaign. Lobby groups for the homeless have been pointing up the growing homeless crisis around Dublin in particular, with hundreds, including families with children, housed – at public expense – in temporary accommodation like hotels and guest houses, the situation created by a lack of affordable housing. Add in the inadequacy of accommodation available to Travellers, the meagre quantity of new housing under construction and planned and the anticipated arrival of more refugees and asylum seekers and the whole issue of housing is likely to generate much political heat, and many political promises, this side of the election.

Crime will also feature on the doorsteps. The inexorable rise in, and growing savagery of, burglaries by gangs operating across the country – an unforeseen curse of an expanding motorway network – has generated considerable public disquiet. October’s budget has promised more police – an essential – but there remains considerable public dissatisfaction over both the easy availability of bail and the leniency of sentences handed down to those found guilty There is also a perceived need to tackle as a priority organised crime in border areas.

It remains to be seen, however, what impact either issue will have in terms of swaying voters in an election likely to be dominated by mundane bread and butter issues like jobs, taxes and disposable income.

The General Election is set for the New Year, probably late February or early March. Yet for several weeks speculation was rife that it might take place this November. Speculation began when a mid-September poll showed Fine Gael at 28%, back at its support level of six months before, and Labour at last back in double figures at 10%. These figures were still well short of those needed to gain re-election, with Labour in particular lagging at half its 2011 support. However with Fine Gael support at 75% of its 2011 figure, and seemingly steady, and with the promise of a giveaway budget to come, noises began to emanate from Fine Gael to the effect that it might be better to go early, soon after the budget, lest some banana skin crop up over the winter, even if this meant cutting Labour adrift.

The curious logic behind this was that Labour were unlikely to improve very much before March – if they did it would be a bonus – that opposition parties would be wrong-footed ( waiting until March gave them five months to prepare), and that in the aftermath of a giveaway budget Fine Gael would be able to set the election agenda, concentrating heavily on the achievement of turning the economy around and the need for continued stable government. Given there appeared no realistic alternative government, the expectation was, presumably, that even a reduced Fine Gael, combined with a reduced Labour – which had nowhere else to go – plus one or two of the newer smaller parties and/or amenable independents would be enough to win.

Even more curious was the belief, underpinning this, that, with the economic indicators all positive, and rising employment to boot, the electorate would recognise, appreciate and reward the government for the economic recovery. Ministers, Backbenchers and Candidates suddenly appeared in the media parroting the line of recovery and stability. The Taoiseach, heretofore firm that the Government would run its full term, seemed to equivocate. There was consternation in Labour, which wanted to hang on in the hope of regaining some support after a post budget boost and which appeared to be edging towards some form of (mutually beneficial) voting pact with Fine Gael. The bookies priced a November poll at 3 to 1 on.

There was much wishful thinking here. Voters may want stability. They may see signs of recovery. But they are not stupid. The Irish reality is that virtually nobody earning under €60,000 gross has felt economic recovery in the form of more disposable income. This category includes most of the ordinary punters. To go for an election before the benefits from a giveaway budget are actually felt in people’s pockets bears out the capacity for politicians to self-delude, particularly if they are comfortably off and cocooned from reality. Then, for whatever reason, a dawning of reality, wiser counselling ,or pressure from Labour, the Taoiseach had a rethink and backed off. The election will be in 2016.

The Budget days later was virtually anticlimactic. Most of it had been leaked beforehand. There was something for everyone, including a major cut in the Universal Social Charge levy, and small hikes in state pensions and child benefit. After years of taking,“ for this relief much thanks.” The benefits to come into effect on New Year’s Day, apart that is from the one bit of bad news, a 50 cent hike in cigarette prices, effective immediately. That cigarette price rise may ultimately boost public health; in the short term it will certainly boost the already considerable cross-border smuggling trade.

The country is now in election mode, with a lengthy campaign ahead. For the moment the initiative is with the Government, the strain between the partner parties gone and the opposition somewhat in disarray. This may change. Irish Water remains a festering sore. A crisis unforeseen may blow up. But not so far. A telling sign perhaps was that, for the first time in years, there were no protests outside the Dail on Budget Day. The Government can now definitely set the election agenda. Stability anyone? Re-election anyone?

20/10

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