First hearty congratulations to my old friend the new Irish Senator, Billy Lawless, well known to Chicago’s Irish community. I know you’ll do Ireland and the Irish Community overseas, including the Undocumented, proud.
How long Billy will serve will depend on how long the current government lasts. The jury is very much out on this as the new administration feels its way in its first weeks. What is clear is that there will be frequent “crises” with Dail defeats for the government on banal populist motions with no legislative or practical effects beyond stoking unrealistic sentiments of entitlement on various issues. And, of course, taking up a lot of Dail time and energy as well as generating publicity for the usually leftist advocates.
Whatever about letting off steam , none of these constitute “confidence issues” which could bring the government down. Banana Skins apart, any crunch is most likely to come on issues involving actual allocations of money especially where there is choice involved or some need either to increase tax or reduce benefits. On this the current outlook is “so far so good.” The economic indicators are all positive and tax revenues buoyant, permitting – already – some allocations from the “fiscal space” wiggle room on which the last government , ironically, fought the election. As long as the money keeps rolling in cuts can be restored and even modest improvements made, though nothing sufficient to meet even a fraction of the official wish list. October’s Budget should prove manageable and perhaps indicative of the government’s life expectancy.
Yet Banana Skins internal and external remain a constant threat. Indeed by the time you read this one major external banana skin could have arisen, with certainly long term and possibly short term effects on politics here. This is the June 23 British referendum on leaving the European Union. As I write it is certainly too close to call, with the polls actually showing a majority in favour of leaving (Brexit). A surge in support for Brexit in recent weeks has caught the Establishment, in Britain, in Brussels and throughout the Union by surprise. What appeared until recently unthinkable could well become reality.
Should Britain vote to stay in the result is likely to be close but settled for several years at least. Should Britain vote to LEAVE there would obviously be particular important implications for Ireland. To name but a few: we are the only country sharing a land frontier, hence the resurrection of cross –border issues thought long buried, with possible implications for the Peace Process; Britain is our major trading partner and business connections are many; both countries are home to sizeable numbers of expats from the other and we enjoy a common travel area. There could be immediate currency fluctuations ( Sterling falling) which could sabotage our recovery.
For Britain the process of exiting would take time (several years ), be complex and complicated and involve inter alia negotiations of sectoral agreements across the spectrum of the EU internal market, probably resulting in arrangements along the lines of agreements with Switzerland and Norway. There is universal acceptance here, and in Europe, that Brexit and its aftermath are likely to be disadvantageous for Ireland, possibly considerably so.
The appeal of Brexit to a sizeable proportion of the British electorate has dumbfounded the chattering classes across Europe. As I write an “Operation Stable Door” is being mounted by the “Stay” campaign even involving Taoiseach Enda Kenny urging the Irish in Britain to vote to remain. The final week could be decisive. Momentum has been with the Brexit side; whether the hiatus after the murder of British M.P. Jo Cox could change this remains to be seen.
Little-England nationalism aside, the Brexit movement should perhaps be seen in the context of the sizeable and almost universal Europe-wide popular disenchantment with the way society is perceived to be evolving, with the existing establishment and party political dominance under threat from populists on both the left and right.
Potential domestic banana skins are beginning to emerge. The government has a date with destiny next year over the Irish Water issue when the expert commission reports. In the interim there could be further trouble over pursuing those who haven’t paid for existing water bills – possibly half of all households – with the responsible Minister (Coveney) and the Taoiseach insisting on payment and threatening action on this. And nobody has yet posed the question what happens politically if the commission early next year recommends charging consumers for water.
The last government missed the warning signs over water and political antennae should have been up. Yet incredibly until very recently the July 1introduction of a new system of charging for garbage removal seemed likely to slip by unnoticed. Anti- garbage- charge protests have a history with over twenty people jailed in 2003. The protests then petered out, and most garbage collection services were subsequently privatised, with charges inching up. The new system , based on weight, backed up by an EU directive and dressed up as preferable environmentally, was presented as being no more expensive. Fears that the garbage companies would gouge consumers with doubling charges or worse have panicked the government. Action is pending to suspend the new regime. Watch this space. Caving in to populist howls on any issue does not augur well for the government’s long term survival.
An undoubted looming banana skin relates to the head of steam building up to repeal the Eighth Amendment which in 1983 copper-fastened the legal ban on abortion. Subsequent referenda modified the total ban – by a very narrow margin in 2002 – by providing for abortion where there was a threat of suicide by the mother. The pro-choice lobby are calling for the whole amendment to be revisited. It was an electoral issue, albeit a minor one, and considerable interest has focussed recently on distressing cases involving carrying non-viable foetuses to term (fatal foetal abnormalities). The Taoiseach’s position is that a “citizen’s assembly” is to examine all aspects of the issue and report to the Dail, for a promised “free vote”, presumably not until well into 2017. As always on this highly emotive issue, the devil will be in the detail of anything put to the vote, with differences among politicians already demonstrable, many too coy to commit and the threat to the government’s survival evident.
There are other known knowns threatening. Following settlement in a lengthy dispute involving drivers for LUAS, Dublin’s light rail system, the message to unions is that persistence with unreasonable wage demands is likely to be rewarded with an eventual cave in by the official side. Sectoral relativities are prompting a rash of similar claims as well as demands for the restoration of wage cuts in the public sector ( a huge headache for the public finances) and action over minimum wage levels. While these are unlikely to bring down the government, the political fallout, in terms of a steady drip of accompanying defeats on Dail motions cannot but be demoralising.
Then there are the true Banana Skins – the Unknown Unknowns. What else is out there in the long grass? Irish politics is never boring!