By Sean Farrell
As this is written, we are well into the second week of the General Election campaign; the vote to take place on Saturday 8 February. Though the early opinion polls show the two main parties neck and neck, as they have been virtually since 2016, it has not been a good start for Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. They have lost that vital early momentum which governments generally have and will have to strive to recover it, particularly as there is a tendency for incumbents running on their record to underestimate their unpopularity and to forget that eaten bread is soon forgotten.
No party appears likely to win an absolute majority so the end results for the minor parties and the Independents are likely to determine the makeup of the next (coalition) government. How the Greens will fare, given the hot topic of the moment – Climate Change – and whether Labour can recover from the meltdown of 2016 will therefore be watched with interest. So also whether Sinn Fein, currently riding high in the polls at around 20%, can hold on to this or whether, as has happened recently, their support will fall away. A big question also is whether either of the major parties will be willing to strike a deal with Sinn Fein, and under what conditions, current positions notwithstanding.
In the end, after all the talking around dates, the Taoiseach’s hand was forced when it became clear that his government could no longer command enough support in the Dail to win a threatened No Confidence vote on Health Minister Simon Harris. Though many in his party were pushing for an early date, he would probably have preferred to delay for several months – February is not the best time to be canvassing and a severe winter or a surge in winter sickness levels could both adversely affect his party’s chances, and who knew what other banana skins might be lying around.
One huge banana skin has already been trodden on, with an ill-conceived scheduling for late January of an event to commemorate those Irishmen who served in the RIC and the DMP before independence. We are currently in a decade of what have been hailed as commemorations of anniversaries and centenaries, with the Treaty, the Foundation of the Free State and the Civil War to come. The script was written – peace, reconciliation, inclusiveness and parity of esteem. It was after all the construct on which the Good Friday Agreement was based and to which the great and the good had signed up.
However, not everybody was in favour of honouring former policemen, most of whom had been conscientious and dutiful, but some of whom had been active on the British side in the War of Independence. (They were clearly seen as different to those Irishmen who had served – and died in great numbers – in the World War, and who have recently been given recognition after decades of being airbrushed out of history). There was uproar from the public, academics and in the media, with allegations of RIC brutality and atrocities and even the involvement of some Irishmen in the ranks of the infamous Black and Tans recalled. Justice Minister Flanagan quickly postponed the planned event (will it ever take place?) but both he and the Taoiseach expressed regret at the public reaction with the Taoiseach stating ‘we should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past.’
Whether any lasting electoral damage was done to Fine Gael is unclear; an immediate early opinion poll hinted that it had, but a subsequent poll showed the party had recovered. However, Fine Gael was definitely wrong-footed by this and by two further events which dominated the week’s news, just as the election was called, siphoning off any positive headlines the Government might have expected.
First the grisly murder and dismemberment of a 17-year old youth, a minor foot-soldier in one of the feuding drug gangs in Drogheda; then a tragic accident in which one of Dublin’s homeless, sleeping in a tent by the Grand Canal, in preference apparently to accepting hostel accommodation (too dangerous) was critically injured by heavy machinery employed to remove his tent to “clean up” the canal bank, not far from Patrick Kavanagh’s bench. Manna for the headline writers and opposition politicians, hitting at two of the areas where the government is at its weakest – Crime and Homelessness. The apparent impunity with which a criminal gang could operate has shocked public opinion while the unfortunate accident at the canal has thrown into sharp focus the harsh reality of life for the homeless.
The Taoiseach and other Ministers were noticeably uncomfortable at having to comment on specifics instead of the usual waffle on generalities and the promises in party manifestos. They will be hoping for a better fortnight to come and no more nasty surprises. Their election strategy seems to be the combination of a safe pair of hands on the Economy and a much done, more to do low key approach generally. This may well work. And in fact Fianna Fail are adopting a somewhat similar approach, both parties working on the assumption that after the ups and downs since 2008, the public are sceptical about instant solutions or panaceas. It could make for a fairly dull election campaign; even if promises are made most will be tinkering rather than game changing. The grim spires of Housing and the Health Service on top of the Homeless are not susceptible to quick fixes. Fine Gael can declare that on all fronts progress has been made; Fianna Fail may argue that more needs to be done. And that will be that.
It will nevertheless be an important election, not just a decision on which person will have the dubious honour of shaking Trump’s hand in the White House come St Patrick’s Day. Apart from other domestic issues the electorate will also be voting for a government to deal with the still unclear aftermath of Brexit (it hasn’t gone away, you know!). We now face into the transition period in which the future relationship between the EU and the fifth largest economy in the world is worked out. One certainty continues to be that there will be collateral damage to Ireland, though how much is unclear.
There will be a new balance of power within the Union, something rarely commented on. There will also be the issue of how the EU reacts to Britain’s departure – a major contributor to the EU budget. We face into a full financial seven-year period in which Ireland will be a growing net contributor to the EU budget, and where the significant requirements of combating climate change will have to be financed nationally, with an end to shadow boxing and rhetoric.
In Irish politics personalities count, and ultimately too many Fine Gael stalwarts are set to retire. So, it’s early days, but if I had to give a punt it will be that Micheal Martin will be the next Taoiseach