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Shaken and stirred. The Government in the wake of the Budget. October 20, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
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This is a fascinating state of affairs. And would be more so if it weren’t for the underlying issues which are of the greatest importance to the future shape of this part of the island and its approach to healthcare, education and welfare.

Firstly, let’s consider the Green Party. Now, their latest stance is once of ‘concern’.

Green Party leader John Gormley spoke to Mr Cowen yesterday, and conveyed the concerns of its TDs and senators over the decision.

The party said it had asked for a review, which was being done.

But in a bit of fancy footwork they also stated…

[that] yesterday it said it had said this issue was never a pulling-out-of-Government-one.

However, party whip Ciarán Cuffe said the handling had been appalling, and warned that “a good outcome must be found to protect the vulnerable”.

Hmmmm… on a political level it makes sense for them to avoid the old Progressive Democrat “march to the exit” tactic on every contentious issue. On the other hand this is very very clearly an issue that has enormous resonance. If not go now, well then when? And I can’t be the only one to wonder at how they stuck solidly through Ahern’s growing travails over the past year before his departure. Or – to put it another way – what precisely is their bottom line and when would they walk?

Moreover again on a political level, how much leverage can they exert if they’ve already said they’ll stay put? They seem to be saying that even if the original proposal were passed they would stay in government – although Cuffe appears to be trying to generate some slight wriggle room. Now perhaps their thinking is that this demonstrates their new seriousness of purpose, that as coalition partners they’re stuck solid and they’re not going to be buffeted, as were the PDs before them, by every passing crisis.

But I think it’s fair to suggest that there are crises and then there are crises.

But here’s another thought. Perhaps they’re being utterly cynical and hoping that the Joe Behans and other still seated Fianna Fáil backbenchers and their constituents will do the heavy lifting for them on this matter and provoke sufficient ire to force the Government (a.k.a. Cowen et al) to back down to the necessary degree on the matter.

I hope they’ve read this right. Word is that the non-FF TDs are getting a considerable degree of flak from constituents. An hitherto unprecedented degree. That’s got to hurt. And word has it too that while in the earlier part of last week the public’s ire was directed against FF as the week lengthened the penny dropped amongst said public that the non-FF TDs were helping keep the ship afloat.

And keep it afloat they are doing. Over lunch I had a quick look at the figures. As it stands FF, the Green Party and the other one… oh, yeah, the PDs, have 85 seats . The combined opposition (including Behan and – yes, the prodigal son of the Irish independent left, Finian McGrath, of which more later) have 78. That leaves two, Jackie Healy Rae and Michael Lowry.

The Irish Times suggests that the latter two will abstain in a vote, despite JHR’s protestations that:

“It’s a pure disaster in the world. I could not go to a funeral and go out the door but people were sticking into me. The one thing they do not want to hear the word of is a ‘means test’. A lot of them feel if there’s a means test then their pensions will be taken away. I cannot vote against the old people.”

Ah… the old people…

But look again at the figures. On paper the government remains solid, short of an FF meltdown – not beyond the bounds of possibility but less likely today than it was on Saturday (and how Cowen must be thanking God for that weekend intervening so that it allowed some of the febrile energy of Friday to dissipate).

Which leads us back to the Green Party, this is I think pure poison for them and they don’t seem to have recognised it as such. I’ve touched on the idea before that they may have cultural problems dealing with social welfare and provision issues, and here we see this made manifest. It’s not that they are, like the PDs, indifferent to such matters, simply that they are tone deaf as regards their impact – indeed I’m reminded somewhat of the Fitzgerald incarnation of Fine Gael whose social democratic gloss was very very thin indeed and often amounted to little more than good intentions writ small. How else to explain them waving through this raft of measures through Cabinet? And while they can make great play of the concept that their being in government is a priori a good thing in itself because the greater issue of planetary survival is at stake, well, that only goes so far when set against the actuality of political campaigning.

And the thing is that that simply won’t cut it with the electorate. I would argue that they came out agin the proposals a bit too late… certainly once McGrath and Lowry made the running and Behan hopped over board on Friday afternoon anything they did seemed to be borne of necessity rather than principle. So their collective appearance to express unhappiness (but no exit plans) seemed weak. And pulls the spotlight back onto them.

Who would be a Green Party TD in the Dáil this week?

And what about our Finian? Well, he’s back… Sort of. Perhaps. Probably. Maybe.

Mr McGrath, who represents Dublin North Central, contacted Government chief whip Pat Carey on Saturday to say he could not support the Government unless the decision to withdraw the universal availability of the card to over 70s was reversed.

He told The Irish Times yesterday he was likely to walk away from the arrangement he made with the coalition in return for his support. This would mean he would support a Fine Gael Private Members’ motion condemning the medical card decision when it was debated in the Dáil this week.

Mr McGrath said he had received little reassurance from Mr Cowen’s RTÉ interview yesterday. “It leaves me in a difficult position. It is looking like I am on the way out. My view is that tinkering around and including a few more thousand people will not wash.”

Naturally. But… It is looking like I am on the way out. Am I the only one to find that a curiously ambiguous and detached phrasing. Looking like to who? The guy he sees in the mirror every morning? His constituents? The political media?

And curiously different to his statements earlier in the week which appeared to show support of a kind for the Medical Card removal.

What of the rumours swirling around that Harney might go if the Medical Card issue is parked or dropped. Hardly a huge loss, and one that would presumably bring McGrath back into the fold.

Her language has been a little vague:

If the Government could not get it through the Dail, clearly it had “an issue”, she said.

Asked if she would resign if she felt scapegoated by Fianna Fail, Ms Harney said she worked as a team with the Taoiseach and other colleagues whom she trusted.

“We did not blindly make this decision. We discussed it at great, great length,” she added.

Anyhow, who could have predicted this disaster? For an example of appalling management of the issues, let alone the policies themselves, it’s hard to think of a similar situation in recent times. And to see a crisis which has the potential to split FF, or see Harney leave government, develop so rapidly. It’s really something.

I can’t help but admit that while I think it will be sorted out, albeit to no-one’s satisfaction, it is great to see the discomfiture of the great and the good. Disarray. Excellent.

A further small thought. If McGrath walked and Behan remained outside FF (big asks) then the numbers to re-establish a Technical Group with Sinn Féin and Tony Gregory would exist. It would alter not so much the composition as the tenor of the Dáil giving SF a more prominent role. Going to happen? I doubt it. But who knows?

Well, I asked one person who has seen these sort of things come and go, whether they thought this was a full blown crisis and their read was that more than likely it’ll be business – more or less – as normal by next week or so. They think that the sting may have been taken out of it. I don’t know. I guess we’ll see.

And something else to consider. I’ve been thinking a bit more about the contrast between McGrath and Gregory, and one might argue that Gregory had the great good luck to see the government which his deal sustained not last jig time in the end, allowing him to claim (entirely correctly) the glory with none of the messy compromises that an extended term would have entailed, and the consequent finger pointing. You know, that might be true not just of McGrath in this Dáil, but also the Green Party.

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1. McGrath has gone… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - October 20, 2008

[…] October 20, 2008 Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics. trackback And… ahem… He also signalled the possibility of the re-establishment of a technical group in the Dáil, […]

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