Fergus Finlay: Politicians sit on their hands while the country faces existential crises

No party got a mandate to form a government on its own but Sinn Féin got a mandate to be involved, writes Fergus Finlay

Dr John Cuddihy, Director, Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HSE Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health Dr Ronan Glynn, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health; during a media update on the confirmed case of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland at the Department of Health, Miesian Plaza, Baggot Street, Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Dr John Cuddihy, Director, Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HSE Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health Dr Ronan Glynn, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health; during a media update on the confirmed case of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland at the Department of Health, Miesian Plaza, Baggot Street, Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

THIS is getting beyond a joke. It’s getting to the point where you’d seriously begin to question the capacity for political leadership in our country. Where you’d begin to lose all respect for what you might call (or once have called, anyway) the senior players on the team.

The bottom line is we have three potential crises. And no government. Oh, sure, we have a so-called caretaker government. Engaged? Ploughing endless hours of mental energy and resources into their jobs? On top of everything? You’ve got to be kidding me.

We have two old and well-established political parties in our State. One of them claims to have founded the State and all its key institutions. The other claims to have founded the modern Irish economy and to have built all the engines of progress.

They’re both sitting on their hands as three significant issues develop around them. As far as I can tell, there’s been no serious engagement between them, no exchange of policy papers, no briefings on the key economic or social issues, no discussion about what is or isn’t acceptable, no setting out of bottom lines.

And meanwhile, the three issues we face could very quickly become major crises.

There is fear of the coronavirus — the kind of fear that could easily turn into panic. There is distress and anxiety at the damage the hard weather has caused. And there is the looming threat of a walkout by Britain from already difficult negotiations on the real meaning of Brexit.

And in the face of possible crisis, leadership is left to civil servants. On the news at the weekend, the camera at one point panned around the team that’s handling the weather crisis. They were meeting every day last week, apparently, trying to figure out what colour the weather warnings should be, and how to handle the devastation caused by flooding. In the middle of the crowd, it seemed, sat a vacant looking Minister Eoghan Murphy. I realised with a start that I’d almost forgotten what he looked like.

But we now know what Tony Holohan looks like. He’s the chief medical officer of the Department of Health, and he’s been on every news bulletin I’ve seen. He’s doing a great job as far as I can tell. He’s calm and measured, and conveys an air of certainty.

But as a citizen, I don’t know where his authority comes from. If he needs to do more than reassure, I don’t know what political resources are behind him. He and his colleagues, for instance, decided that the rugby match against Italy shouldn’t go ahead — and that was clearly a proactive decision (and there will be more, no doubt).

But if the IRFU had decided the Department of Health should hump off, what further steps, apart from public opinion, were open to a civil servant?

And yesterday, the negotiations on phase two of Brexit began. These are negotiations that will have the most profound implications for Ireland. By the time we have a government — if we ever have a government — several crisis points may well have been reached in those negotiations. Nobody in Ireland will have the kind of real authority that is necessary to intervene effectively. We’ll be holding a watching brief, through highly competent public servants who will be tearing their hair out at the absence of a properly mandated government.

To make matters worse, not only do we not have a government, we have yet to see any serious engagement around the need for a government. The play acting that is going on is disgraceful.

I’ve written here before that the mandate Sinn Féin won in the election has to be respected. I say that as someone who has been a life-long opponent of that party. But as a democrat, I believe in my heart that it is absolutely disgraceful that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael has sought to meaningfully engage with them.

I’m sick to my back teeth of listening to the platitude that 75% of people didn’t vote for Sinn Féin. Virtually 80% of people didn’t vote for either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, and nobody is saying they have no right to be involved in government formation. No party got a mandate to form a government on its own, but Sinn Féin, whether I like it or not, got a mandate to be involved.

If there are conditions Sinn Féin needs to meet about its commitment to the institutions of the State, those conditions should form part of negotiations. If there are policy issues around which there are deep divisions, they should be thrashed out in negotiations. But there is simply no democratic basis on which a political party that secured more votes than any other should be frozen out of the important business of forming a government.

Its mandate shouldn’t be just respected, it should be tested. If there is stuff it can’t agree to, we need to know what that is, and the only way that will emerge is meaningful negotiation.

We’ve been here before. I was up to my neck in the efforts to form a government in 1992, and it was back-breaking, unremitting work for everyone involved. Virtually from the moment the election result was declared, intense and difficult meetings started happening. Most of them involved the full glare of publicity and some of them were unsuccessful. The outcome wasn’t predictable at the start, and that’s another story.

But the point was that forming a government is a major part of the responsibility of serious politicians. People who scratch their behinds while they should be in locked rooms thrashing out policies and processes aren’t leaders. You’d even wonder if they deserve to be called responsible.

Fergus Finlay: Politicians sit on their hands while the country faces existential crises

IF Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are determined to shut Sinn Féin out of government, they must get into gear now. They can’t allow the country that elected them to drift into crisis over any of the major issues we face. They can’t abdicate responsibility and allow weeks to go by while they draw their salaries and accumulate their pensions.

These are the same people who regularly bemoaned the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the fact that it deprived the people of Northern Ireland a voice when they needed it most. Yet, as we face looming crisis, they are content to allow maybe three months to go by before a government is formed. Our voice doesn’t matter, it seems.

They know now, of course, from an opinion poll at the weekend, what the people think of them. If there were another election — and I’m beginning to think we might need one — there would, I think, be little doubt about who the people want in government.

Above all, we need a government, and we need one that can command a majority. It needs to be ready to address critical issues — and we all know what they are — and capable of doing it. The time for aimless, point-scoring, backside-scratching politics is over. We are entitled to expect and demand that the people we have elected find a civilised and democratic way to fulfil the aspirations and needs of the people. And we are entitled to demand that they do it now.

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