Political Analysis by Sean Farrell
The new and different Irish Coalition Government has presided over the first significant relaxation of lockdown, but it will be a considerable time before the Economy scrambles back to any semblance of normality. The pace of recovery will partly depend on whether or not the relaxation backfires and the virus resurges.
The jury is still out on that one, but judging by the first weekend of pub openings, the omens in Ireland as elsewhere are not good. Hopefully, it was just pent-up demand and matters will settle down. Next up a major stimulus package has been promised for mid-July. It had better be ambitious and considerable, with unemployment over 20% and whole sectors, like leisure and tourism, barely functioning.
The Government is on a steep learning curve with time running out. The traditional dreary steeples of Housing and Homelessness have emerged once more and this time Health has the added kick of the coronavirus. Currently, there is pressure for relaxation of travel restrictions, but with many of the new daily cases linked to foreign travel, for the moment the new Government is holding firm. Re-introducing a lockdown could be difficult, would test public support and would certainly hold back attempts at economic recovery.
Moreover, now that there IS a government, the public consensus that sustained the country during the lockdown is fast disappearing, aggravated by the feeling of disgruntlement from that section of the electorate which did not support the Coalition. Sinn Féin, now spearheading the Opposition, has vowed to present the strongest opposition any Irish government has faced.
Already there has been trouble. The Coalition agreement provides for a ‘Rotating Taoiseach’ with Micheál Martin scheduled to step aside for Varadkar in November 2022. Whether this will ever happen remains to be seen; whatever about a week, thirty months is a very long time in politics! The net effect was to leave no honeymoon period and the new Taoiseach was obliged to hit the ground running. Which he did.
First up was picking the Cabinet, which provoked howls of disappointment from Fianna Fáil backbenchers – and a few frontbenchers – who failed to grasp that there were few loaves and fishes to distribute as Fianna Fáil’s share (five Cabinet posts plus seven junior Ministers). Most surprising was that Fianna Fáil’s Deputy Leader, Dara Calleary, did not get a Cabinet post, becoming instead an unhappy Chief Whip.
As a sign that attitudinal change ‘comes dropping slow’, there was resentment across the board in the West, among politicians and the general public alike, that there was no cabinet post for anyone West of the Shannon and some surprise at the new Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, who only joined Fianna Fáil in 2016. However, Donnelly was Opposition Spokesman on Health, knows the brief thoroughly and Martin was taking no chances with the corona crisis far from over.
Interestingly, three Cabinet members are from the one Cork constituency, while two more are from Wicklow. Interesting also is that little dissatisfaction was heard from Fine Gael ranks though they suffered the greatest haemorrhage of former senior and junior Ministers. The Greens, who did best in terms of posts, have been quietest.
What about Sinn Féin?
Most commentators consider that Sinn Féin, though excluded, stand to gain most. Not only will their un-costed populist election manifesto not be put to the test, but their exclusion has absolved them of any responsibility for what are likely to be difficult decisions for the Government. Circumstances would appear to have gifted them an unparalleled opportunity.
Since it became clear that the Government would be formed without them, they have been parroting two themes. The first was that the country had ‘voted for change’ and this was being denied them. The second was that their vote (535,595) was greater than any other party and that those who voted for them were entitled to have their voices heard – to be in government. This was of course straight out of the old Sinn Féin playbook in the North a generation ago when Gerry Adams spoke of the ‘mandate’ Sinn Féin had from those who voted for them. And, in the particular circumstances of the North, where there was no political consensus and every election a zero-sum game over national identity, it had validity. The Good Friday Agreement and all that has flowed from it, inter alia, acknowledged that ‘mandate’ by enshrining cross-community power-sharing as central to devolved government; by then, Sinn Féin had, in any event, muscled its Nationalist rival the SDLP out of the way.
The argument has little validity in the South, where there is no tribal division in politics. Last February Sinn Féin got 24.5% of the vote, hardly a mandate for inclusion in government. The three-party Coalition has 50.2% (without the Greens it would be 43.1%). When Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald complained in a radio interview on 28 June that the other parties had conspired to exclude Sinn Féin, she had no answer when the interviewer pointed out that every coalition government in the State without Fianna Fáil had effectively shut out Fianna Fáil, the largest party and poll getter by far. For the record, Fianna Fáil were shut out after five elections in which they secured by far the largest percentages of votes and seats: in 1948, 41.9% and 77 seats; in 1954 43.4% and 65 seats; in 1973 46.2% and 74 seats; in 1981 45.3% and 78 seats and in 1982 46.2% and 75 seats.
Was this a vote for change?
Well, did the electorate ‘vote for change’? The call for change underpinned Sinn Féin’s election campaign, one which saw their support hold up over the final months leading into last February, in contrast to previous elections where it had fallen away as polling day approached. It’s a powerful argument, particularly given the size of the actual Sinn Féin vote. The theme that ‘the people voted for change’ and that the popular will has been frustrated by the other main parties, is a new page in the playbook, one which Sinn Féin are likely to push at every opportunity. This has become a popular refrain, trotted out regularly by all those dissatisfied with the election result for whatever reason) and one that is likely to be heard more and more if the new Government fails to deliver.
There has of course, as one columnist pointed out last week, been one very major change in that the two old Civil War parties are now in government together, something unthinkable only a few years ago. But this was hardly what those voting for change had in mind.
However, it’s not quite the vote for change yet. The votes for the two traditional parties and the aggregate identifiable Leftist vote, are virtually identical at 43% each, with the balance made up of the Greens and the various Independents, many of whom can hardly be described as radical.
Right now the future is uncertain; indeed who could have predicted 2020 thus far? Will Sinn Féin exploit their good fortune? Or will this unique Coalition actually succeed?