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“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Fine Gael in the current dispensation… March 14, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
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Reading Backroom in the SBP this weekend was an interesting experience. Let’s start with one fascinating sentence.

The fact that Pat Rabbitte – widely viewed as the closest of all Labour ministers to Fine Gael – effectively scuppered the planned hilarity before a star was born added to the barely-contained glee among some Labour figures. There are few occasions for joy in Labour these days, so Backroom won’t begrudge them their ear-to-ear grins.

There are those of us who remember all too well from our WP and later DL days when one P. Rabbitte was ‘viewed as the closest of all WP/DL TDs to the Labour Party’ [indeed the recent, though flawed, history of Democratic Left pulls no punches in that regard, it seems clear that had the option been available he would have joined the LP much earlier than any of his peers]. I’m most certainly not suggesting he might end his days on the path Michael O’Leary blazed three decades ago. But he’s clearly a man who once he started moving never has quite known when to stop.

That ‘hilarity’ was, of course, over a single issue:

Fine Gael’s faux pas over its proposed celebration of 12 months in government produced much light relief in Labour Party circles.

There’s been much written about that celebration. Backroom doesn’t linger on it, just saying:

Fine Gael’s embarrassment also deflected attention from the more serious issue of the week, Joan Burton’s refusal to back down over her contention that a deal on the promissory note was critical to the passage of the forthcoming referendum.

That’s true, and the Burton issue is fascinating. But we’ve dealt with that previously, and no doubt will again. Backroom’s thesis that the “Economic Management Council (EMC) – a group of senior ministers of which she is not a member – forms the backdrop to Burton’s referendum comments” is pertinent as is his/her sense that:

Burton isn’t alone in feeling that the cabinet has been sidelined on important fiscal and economic issues. The view is shared, in varying degrees, by her colleagues in cabinet such as Ruairн Quinn, Richard Bruton and Rabbitte.

And Backroom suggests Quinn feels the EMC was responsible in some measure for the DEIS fiasco. Fair enough, I suppose, but given that Quinn is one of the few Ministers to sit through debates on his own area in the Dáil chamber one might be puzzled that the level of micro management that that suggests didn’t allow for some flags to be raised on the issue well in advance. Anyhow, Backroom argues that:

The benign interpretation is that it [the EMC] is a temporary, emergency innovation necessary at a time of unprecedented crisis, to ensure a coordinated and coherent policy approach.

A more critical interpretation is that it creates a cabinet within a cabinet, and undermines collective decision-making. In years to come, political scientists will pore over these implications, but for the moment, it seems that many around the cabinet table have a real concern that the latter interpretation is closer to reality. That will lead to more ministerial outbursts in the future, not fewer.

What a happy situation we all are in. But let’s return to that FG celebration. Niamh Connolly in another piece notes:

But within hours of Kenny and Gilmore’s public display of coalition harmony [at the Press Conference marking the first anniversary of the Coalition], the two parties were at each other’s throats over Fine Gael’s flamboyant celebratory plans to mark its first year in office.

In a seriously misguided reading of the public mood, Fine Gael headquarters envisaged the TDs awarding their own party stars for achievements in a photo opportunity in Merrion Square.

Labour minister Pat Rabbitte’s caustic description of the plan as “silly” put an end to the caper. Rabbitte said on RTE radio last Thursday morning he hoped Fine Gael deputies “get over their excitement quickly. We have had successes, but we have failures and we have a long way to go.”

Here’s the thing. What does this represent? The very fact that FG felt it was possible to raise this, and Connolly notes that far from Kenny claiming at a press conference that he’s only just heard about the ‘celebration’ he’s actually been at a PP meeting the previous night where John Deasy had raised objections, suggests that FG are supremely at ease in the current dispensation.

How else to explain an event where their TDs and Senators would award stars to mark their ‘achievements’ across the year? And if FG feels that all is going well, well truth is whatever the optics, from their perspective it probably is going well for them.

They retain a commanding position in the polls, well ahead of their rivals, with only the hated Shinners moving upwards – and even then there’s a clear ten or more percentage points between them. And given that neither party fishes in the same electoral pool there’s less to that than might be expected. SF can rise and rise and it’s only of benefit to FG who can assume – as they are wont to do – the mantle of defender of the state (and by the way, that works to SF’s benefit as well. There’s many a person who even in this politically apostate period cannot find it within themselves to vote FG and never will. One might see an interesting feedback loop effect operate there).

It suggests that they are comfortable too beyond the electoral area. That government is a good place for them as they see it. After so many years on the outside looking in that would be a natural response. As with SF to push against they are remarkably fortunate in having the LP inside the tent. Following Dáil debates it has been notable how relatively unrestrained FG TDs are in criticising those Ministers drawn from their coalition partners.

One rarely uses the term ‘poor old Ruairi Quinn’ in a sentence but he certainly got an earful that day in the chamber over DEIS. And the LP whether by design or accident has managed to take hold of some of the more tricky parts of Government. In a media discourse where unemployment and Croke Park are commonly used both separately and in tandem as evidences of economic ills there’s no harm having leading LP figures overseeing to a considerable degree aspects of both.

And then there’s the fact that for all the huffing and puffing, and yet another article in the Phoenix, Michael McDowell and a party of the neo-liberal right has as of yet failed to manifest itself. That could easily change, though I was amused by the Phoenix suggesting that in the case of Shane Ross a transfer to FG might be a plausible option if he declined the invitation to join McDowell, because Alan Shatter is likely to retire at the end of this Dáil. Ross can do the math and in a constituency where there are three current TDs, even that constituency being Dublin South, he may well figure that it is safer to keep to his Independent status.

So, no, no surprise that FG are buoyant. And will be for some time to come. After all, this government has their stamp. The LP may nominally have close enough to 40 TDs, but there’s little it can do with them. Policy is determined in large part by the larger party.

And no surprise that they might emerge into the light, however briefly, with a suggestion like this. Problem is that out here there’s a public growing hardly more enchanted by the situation, and it does speak of a certain detachment on FGs part. Is that, though, a problem? If their base remains solid enough, it may simply not be an issue, whatever that rather nebulous ‘public mood’. As they see it they’re delivering for their own, and – naturally – looking after the national interest. What’s not to like?

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