There may be trouble ahead… September 27, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
What a strange time this is in Irish politics, and in some ways it is intriguing that it is Irish politics, as distinct from European politics (and economics) that has moved back into the frame after an absence of quite some time. For example. Last week we had Howlin and his travails over allowances. All forgotten now with the Shortall resignation.
In some ways this is a diversion, an ‘he says, she says’ personality driven politics. And yet in other ways it does indicate divergences that exist within the governing parties. Not huge divergences or distinctions, but serious enough that people would – for example – step back from Ministerial positions. If the argument goes that much of what we’ve seen in respect of the LP in the past number of years was a generational shift where certain individuals were keen to achieve Ministerial office at almost any cost, then logically for someone to resign from said offices must indicate something.
But what’s also obvious is the fragility of the LP. Not in the sense that it is going to founder and wither away. It’s too large a formation for that to happen and has too many links into various areas. But if one looks at it as a coalition of interests then the picture becomes a lot less clear cut, and potentially one where it is open to very significant stresses.
And the mutterings, mentioned before, about dissension within it have been growing louder in the run up to this resignation. Already just about ten per cent of those elected on a Labour ticket in 2011 are now semi-detached from it. And this before further external stresses come into play.
As to the response. This is fascinating. Eamon Gilmore had kind words for Róisín Shortall.
“I regret her decision and I’m disappointed by it,” Mr Gilmore said in a press conference before the launch of The Gathering 2013.
“Róisín is an outstanding public representative and a very good colleague, somebody that I have the highest regard for, so I’m naturally disappointed that she has resigned.”
Though as the Irish Times notes that regard doesn’t appear to have been mutual, she informed him by email after telling the Taoiseach.
But on the substantive issue – or at least the ostensible trigger for her actions?
Mr Gilmore also rejected a suggestion that the decision by Dr Reilly to add 15 locations to a list of primary care centres, including two in Dr Reilly’s own constituency, could be seen as bearing a trace of the clientelism. “We’re not returning to clientelism or anything else associated with previous administrations,” he stated. “I think that the story here is that we are getting on with building primary healthcare centres.”
Fair enough, but even Dr. Reilly’s colleagues were a little bit more equivocal than that.
THE DECISION by Minister for Health James Reilly to add two towns in his constituency to a priority list for primary care centres looked like stroke politics, one of his Cabinet colleagues said last night.
Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar said that, while the reality may be different, “it does look like it. I don’t know if it is or not.”
And consider that ‘the story here’ line from Gilmore. That too is interesting. It’s like Gilmore’s assertion that ‘we’re not returning to clientilism’. Saying it doesn’t make it so and appearance if not quite everything does count for a lot. Attempting to wrest the narrative so openly away from more gloomy interpretations doesn’t convince in and of itself.
And what of ideology?
As Vincent Browne noted at the weekend in the SBP (and actually that was a most far-sighted column, he stated that ‘It is likely this will end in tears, but whose tears are shed has yet to be determined, and there is a major problem looming for the Labour Party’):
Junior health minister Róisín Shortall asked an important question last Wednesday night: who is to bear the burden of the adjustments to our public expenditure – the rich and the vested interests, or those dependent on the health service to provide them with a tolerable existence?
She asked: “Do we increase prescription charges for medical card patients or reduce the drugs bill? Do we cut public health nurses or collect money owed by insurance companies? Do we cut home help or impose a cap on consultants’ pay?” In each instance the inference was that her senior minister, James Reilly, and the government would opt to afflict the afflicted.
She said there must be a focus on primary care, to cut costs in the health service and provide a better service generally, and this involved the recruitment of 300 frontline primary care staff to “areas of greatest need”. She conveyed an impatience with the lack of progress in that area.
This doesn’t by the way mean that Shortall is a socialist, or even much of a social democrat (though she may be residually one or both), a social liberal could easily enough ask those questions and come up with a similar answer. But these are questions that have at least something of ideology about them. And there are ideological distinctions, as Browne notes about the nature of universal health insurance, following on what Shortall said:
As for the other salient promise, a commitment to institute universal health insurance, by far the most significant part of government’s promises – although it is acknowledged that this will take two terms of government (ie, ten years) – she asked: “What model of universal health insurance best suits the situation here in Ireland? Should it be a commercial insurance model or a social insurance model?”
Personally I’m no fan of either, a National Health Service funded through taxation seems to me to be the most progressive option. But, in the context of what is actually happening I’m fairly certain that a social insurance model is superior to a commercial insurance model – for a raft of reason not least of them being the potential for the latter to degenerate into a fully privatised system. And the end of two-tier health and equality of access and service has to be a step forward in and of itself (and arguably provides a broader political and ideological point about equality of access and services in other areas).
And ideological distinctions in the LP itself. Harry McGee has an amazing statement in the Irish Times about this:
Shortall’s resignation is on a different scale completely [to Willie Penrose]. It is reflective of two major fault lines in this Government. The first is that between Fine Gael and Labour over separate policy issues that are incompatible but have been wedged into the programme for government using vague language. The second is the internal crack in the Labour Party between a largely conservative and pragmatic leadership (with a close working relationship with their Fine Gael colleagues) and a more ideological group of backbench TDs – a small number of whom are becoming increasingly vocal about what they see as too much compromise.
‘A largely conservative and pragmatic leadership’. It has come to this? For those of us who have watched a fair few of those in the LP leadership, and at times known them, it is astounding that such a statement could be made. It is, however, all too accurate unfortunately.
But, and this is admittedly a tangent, it’s not as if the shift to further to the right than social democracy is unusual, we’ve seen it elsewhere, but more that unlike elsewhere where Labour and SD parties were under continual attack from the right the dynamic is somewhat different here.
The LP was never large enough to incur that sort of damage, it mosied along much as it always had. Indeed, ironically, one could argue that those in from WP/DL backgrounds had actually had – as political lives go – pretty good wars. WP’s trajectory was across the 1980s and into the early 1990s almost without exception upwards. Even DL – for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth – did pretty well for a small fourth/fifth party in Irish terms, never falling below four seats and picking up seats in by-elections and participating in government during its lifetime. Unlike those in – say – the British Labour Party where there had been relentless attack from the right and little progress across the 1980s and on into the 1990s there wasn’t the same sense of lack of success, the same sense of existential failure and sense that there might never again be a progressive moment. Unless – that is – one counts the most important metric of success as actual participation in government. But given that that was almost an inevitability given the nature of the Irish party political system, even that was – admitting for the long fallow period between 1997 and 2012 – just a matter of time. Yet the current circumstances suggest a prioritisation of the exercise of (some) power over a sense of what that power was for.
Another little giveaway line is the following:
One Minister was critical of her “absolutist” stance and said the resignation would have no long-term consequences for the party. But another senior party figure said TDs were shocked and confused, and suggested Ms Shortall was “shoved” out. “Here was a good woman, a bit of a lone wolf, someone with values. She was prepared to take a stand and she didn’t get the support she deserved.”
There’s a question over the propriety of decisions taken. She resigns. Shortall stands by what she regards as Labour values and is seen as absolutist. There’ll be trouble ahead.