Fergus Finlay: These three men will have to be wise to make a government work

So, are we finally, after the longest interregnum in Irish history, going to have a government? And will it work? asks Fergus Finlay

Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, and Eamon Ryan: The three party leaders will have to be united in government, because they face some daunting tasks.
Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, and Eamon Ryan: The three party leaders will have to be united in government, because they face some daunting tasks.

I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be wishing fair wind to a government made up primarily of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. 

I’ve never voted for either of them, and yet I want them to succeed. In fact, we need them to succeed.

The incoming government, assuming it happens, faces three enormous challenges: Health and societal; economic; and environmental. 

Any one of the three would be immense — all three mean that if this government succeeds, it will genuinely deserve a place in history.

When politics is faced with something as daunting as this government’s task, three political requirements are fundamental: Cohesion, internal loyalty, and trust. 

No government can focus on a huge job if it isn’t absolutely united around a core sense of purpose.

Throughout their entire shared history, politics has been a zero-sum game for FF and FG — one of them only feels good if the other feels bad; one of them is only winning if the other is losing. 

Now, they have to sink or swim together, they will have to go to bat for each other, and they’ll have to find common ground day in and day out.

There has never been much between the parties ideologically or in terms of significant policy, of course, but that’s not the point. 

The point is that, in and of itself, it will be a considerable achievement if, over the next three or four years, they can get on with each other enough to get the job done, and, at the end of it, agree to part on a basis of respect.

And that’s what they have to do. If this government falls apart in recrimination, it will mean the ignominious end of a number of careers.

If it succeeds, of course, it will change Irish politics forever. We have a political history that has largely been defined by the ancient enmity between two tribes. 

The rest of us are largely bit players, who get a chance to play a speaking role now and again. But if that enmity disappears, there’s suddenly room for a really new type of politics.

So, will it succeed? 

The programme for government is only now emerging, but there’s a lot in it to like. 

The first key realisation is that this is not a government that can say, “we’re only seeing the books for the first time, it’s so dreadful that all bets are off”. 

Economically and fiscally, they’ve gone into this with their eyes wide open and appear to have decided that austerity will not be the core part of the solution.

That means, of course, that borrowing will be. There are major risks in that, but they’re mitigated by the fact that everyone else in the EU is in exactly the same boat. 

If Europe is able to decide that we are going to have to pay off the costs of the pandemic over the next 20 years, then that gives us all a lot more leeway — even if it means that debt remains part of our lives.

On a more immediate level, I would have had real anxiety that some of the major issues that dominated life before the pandemic — especially housing and homelessness — would be forgotten about, but there does seem to be real stuff here. 

As someone who has campaigned for a referendum on the right to a home, for example, I’m delighted to see that commitment made.

So far, I haven’t mentioned the Green Party, but on the basis of what has been published, there’s no doubt that it has emerged — and I don’t say this pejoratively — as a very vigorous tail wagging a very large dog. 

The environmental commitments in the programme for government seem, on the face of it, radical. The Greens have wrung a lot of concessions from them.

Maybe, when the history of this period is written, the apparent dogfight within the Greens over the party leadership will look like a political masterstroke rather than the juvenile approach it has seemed up to now.

If both Catherine Martin and Eamon Ryan find themselves able to sign up to the programme, there is no real basis left for a disagreement between them — and therefore no real basis for a leadership contest.

The decision to start a leadership contest does seem to have galvanised the willingness of FF and FG to make concessions. If that’s the way it turns out, we’ll all have to concede that we underestimated them.

One of the strongest rumours around the negotiations has been that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is to be abolished, and that there will be a junior minister in education instead. 

As my former colleague Suzanne Connolly, of Barnardos, said here yesterday, that would be a betrayal.

I still remember the speeches made in the Dáil when the Ryan Report was published, with its appalling history of the abuse of children in religious-run institutions (funded and inspected by the Department of Education and Skills). 

We will make Ireland a model of how children are treated and protected, they said.

I still remember that the reason Tusla was created was because the health system, which up to that point had statutory responsibility for child protection, had failed so badly.

Neither the Department of Children and Youth Affairs nor Tusla can be said to be anything like ‘mission accomplished’. 

Although they have achieved more than they are given credit for, both were hidebound by inadequate resources from the beginning, and sidetracked by a range of other issues.

TO get rid of them now would indeed be a betrayal of our children, and a step backwards in time. 

And to allow the Department of Education and Skills, of all things, to have ultimate legislative responsibility for child protection would be — I’m sorry to have to say it — obscene.

When Louise O’Keeffe was abused by her school principal and sued the State, the Department of Education and Skills (her abuser’s ultimate employer) denied all responsibility for years. 

When children with special needs were denied the basics of an education, the Department of Education and Skills was willing to spend millions in legal fees to fight off their parents. 

That is one department that should never even be considered in this area.

If Leo, Micheál, and Eamon get this wrong, it will be an indelible stain on their record. 

If they get it right, and give a new impetus to child protection and to early years education (centred on the needs of children), they could be two of the most positively transforming things the new government does.

We’ve all packed a lot of experience into the last few difficult months.

Maybe now, the thing we need more than anything else is a bit of imagination in the recipe for the future. 

Give us that and we’ll forgive a lot.

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