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Speeding towards the next election… February 28, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

Backroom in the SBP opens with a provocative statement:

The quick succession of a big deal on the promissory notes and a widely welcomed – albeit belated – apology to the women of the Magdalen Laundries have removed the unmistakable sense of drift which had settled around the government in recent months.


There was a sense that the coalition was increasingly unable to show the public that it was shaping events or in touch with the views of the people it was elected to serve.

S/he continues:

To show that you can impose yourself at the centre of the national narrative is a positive thing. Brian Cowen’s catastrophic final year was dominated by the fact that, no matter what the government did, it simply could never get a break or give a sense of leadership. At least Enda Kenny and his colleagues have shown that they still know how to get themselves front and centre.
What is curious is that they haven’t actually managed to lift the undeniable sullenness among Fine Gael and Labour people. Much of their reaction to the promissory note deal was less about taking pleasure in a job well done than a statement of defiance, expressed almost in anger, that “we’re not dead yet”.

But is it curious? Because such ‘events’ don’t exist in a vacuum where a credulous electorate simply laps up uncritically any old guff that’s thrown at them (though their subsequent electoral choices may leave a lot to be desired). What was striking about the promissory note discussion in the wake of the ‘deal’ was the range of voices, not just those on the left, but those centre and right who pushed back against the government’s narrative.

Which is why Backroom’s next point is intriguing:

This is surprising because the coalition has an enormous majority and three years to go before there needs to be a general election. If you ask around Leinster House, there is common agreement that it’s not really about the polls. There’s more than enough time, and they face an organisationally weak opposition. Sure, wasn’t Bertie Ahern dead and buried for more than a year before the 2007 election and yet still gained votes?

Hmmmm… a lot of questionable statements in the above. The majority is solid, and yes, there’s little or no prospect of an election before those who are in government want to hold it. But. The context is everything. This is a government in power during a particularly difficult economic period, a government which is – whether its constituent elements like it or not, and some like it – is forced to impose austerity on a scale hitherto unknown in the contemporary period, and to continue to do so for years to come. Moreover its approach is essentially indistinguishable from that of its predecessor.

Then there’s the issue about the polls. Enda Kenny cannot fail to be weakened by their continual indications of increasing electoral weakness. Likewise, to a greater extent, for Gilmore. It may be true that the opposition is weak in organisational terms, although that may be overstated because the messages the Government is forced to deliver week in week out are so negative that all others look good by contrast (even Fianna Fáil, and lamentably also increasingly so).
Still, can’t entirely disagree with the following:

No, what’s bothering the government is that it believes its great work to save the country is not being adequately recognised, because of . . . guess who? The media, of course.
“That was a great initiative we launched the other day, but it got no coverage” is the refrain from ministers, advisers and fellow-travellers alike.

I’ve noted before how detached this government seems to be. It’s something common to Governments of all stripes, but this one seems to have perfected it. They genuinely appear unable to understand the impact of their policies. Or worse they’re simply indifferent to them. My own theory, for what it’s worth, is that they developed an attitude that simply because they weren’t FF and because they see themselves as purer than pure it doesn’t matter as much about the outcomes as the fact that their intentions are – as they would see it – good. The wholesale bonfire of their pre-election pledges is a perfect example of that where the fact of their u-turn (and worse) is seen as somehow irrelevant because they mean well. That’s problematic because it’s hardly half a step away from arrogance – some might say it’s no distance at all from it. But how else to explain the lofty disdain they express for all others, the dismissive attitude to criticisms both great and small and their oddly cloth-eared approach to day to day politics?

Interestingly Backroom goes some way with the idea the media is part of the problem…

Is it possible, in today’s Ireland, for any government which is not constantly handing out goodies to get positive coverage? Is the very way in which politics is covered such that cynicism and negativity will always be to the fore?

And that old saw is dragged out…

While the government is, rightly, held to account and challenged about its decisions, nothing comparable ever happens on the other side.
Strong non-government voices get disproportionate access to the media and an easy ride. Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly are elected representatives, but their constant presence in the media and the failure to challenge them on their records or policies are directly distorting debate.

But that’s what oppositions are therefore, to question and to oppose (at least some of the time). It seems perverse to complain when they do precisely what they’re there to do. Backroom does make the point that the government could desist from attacking those who question it, and indeed they could. The level of heat in such exchanges is pretty appalling even if one accepts that there will be inevitably be heat. But there’s another point which is worth considering:

So of course, it’s harder for the government. If the economy turns around, emigration stops and employment goes up, the government has little to worry about.
However, if the picture is more complicated, if it’s “we’re nearly there”, then it’ll have a lot more trouble getting through the media bias emphasising problems, rather than solutions.

And so we get, I suspect, to the main point. That the reality is that in 2015 or 2016 when the government has to go before the electorate the likelihood, as many of us have long argued, is that ‘recovery’ will remain elusive. But you know, so what? If the picture is that unclear then by its own lights this government will have failed. It will not have brought the state and its citizens through the fire safely. And in that instance it will deserver everything it gets (bar perhaps the return to power of FF, though the functional difference will be minimal).

In a way this Backroom piece is interesting because it suggests that the government is waking up to the fact that the situation in 2016 may be little different – at ground level, from the electorate’s point of view – to that in 2013. That has obvious political ramifications. But it also has implications for the shape of Irish politics subsequently.
No recovery in 2015? Then where will the electorate go? Hardly to this government.


1. PaddyM - February 28, 2013

My own theory, for what it’s worth, is that they developed an attitude that simply because they weren’t FF and because they see themselves as purer than pure it doesn’t matter as much about the outcomes as the fact that their intentions are – as they would see it – good.

+1, but isn’t that a description of just about any incarnation of FG/Labour government (and, indeed, of FG’s general attitude since the year dot).


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