Gerard Howlin: A government of last resort would be the worst of all worlds

Ireland was like a Sunday in the 1970s today: Closed. It might have been a snapshot of life before Sunday shopping ushered in an always-on era. Shopping on the Sabbath, however, was optional and conducted in places apart, writes Gerard Howlin.

 A nearly deserted Temple Bar in Dublin city centre on what should have been a day of boon for the tourism industry here. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
A nearly deserted Temple Bar in Dublin city centre on what should have been a day of boon for the tourism industry here. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The digital age means always-on is everywhere, in every gizmo, at home, and as a handcuff for you when you move from place to place.

What could have been calming, contrasting with the annual descent into booze-fuelled marauding, was eerie. 

I enjoyed the quietness. 

For tens of thousands caught between the crosshairs of low pay and high rent, it was a day of silent screaming. Jobs are gone, worse is to come, and there is an immediate crisis of food bills, rent due, and of simply living. 

Those with mortgages may be a little better off in the short term. Banks are bigger institutions, they’ll deal with this in the round. It will be different at the bottom end of the private rented sector.

Today in Dublin more than half a million people would have attended the parade and generated over €73m. 

Globally press coverage from dozens of international travel writers, and television crews would have reached an audience of over 200m. 

Ireland’s recovery would have continued and a burgeoning tourism season begun. The scale of what is happening has scarcely begun to be realised. In this quarter of the year, tourism receipts, excluding carrier receipts, would have been €1.8bn or more.

In London this week, after an initial skirmish in Brussels, serious talks between the UK and the EU are supposed to begin. 

A detailed British paper on what “Brexit means Brexit” means is to be put on the table. Where bandwidth in shuttered, official systems beleaguered by Covid-19 will come from remains to be seen. 

But it is just one mission-critical issue for Ireland, among others.

Trundling towards culmination, too, this year, is the OECD process to decide on how, and critically where, multinational profits are to be taxed. 

Any change will be negative for Ireland — and no change is off the menu. 

That’s all just business as usual.

We had, you may recall, though it is hardly spoken of now, an election on February 8. 

At home talks between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are to restart tomorrow, but the Greens have pointedly reversed out of that cul de sac. On Monday they restated common sense and said: “We are again calling on parties to suspend talks on forming a majority government and come together around a crisis national unity government. This would bring together all parties and Independents to form a cabinet split proportionately and could be done in a way to minimise the disruption for departments dealing directly with the crisis.” 

Predictably, that is being ignored for now.

What is being attempted politically, supposedly as a response to Covid-19, is absolutely the wrong thing at the wrong time. On Covid-19 itself, the Government is handling it reasonably well. 

As Eamon Ryan correctly said, this is a time to minimise disruption, not to cause it. What is scarcely realised is that Covid-19 is not the crisis. It is the prelude for it.

The virus brought life, as we had become used to, to a shuddering stop. The economic consequences are only unfolding. 

Public health will suffer and human life will be lost. But I emphasise this is only a prelude. The current emergency hugely empowers authority to take extraordinary action. 

We saw that, too, in the economic crash. It is afterwards that discipline slackens, and resentment arrives. After the crash that took only a few short years. 

St. Patrick’s Day 2020: Kaye Cooke and Judy-Anne Smith from New Zealand on empty streets in Dublin City.     Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
St. Patrick’s Day 2020: Kaye Cooke and Judy-Anne Smith from New Zealand on empty streets in Dublin City. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The aftermath of the virus, when the first dramatic reckoning has to be made, is at most two to three months away.

As Brexit negotiations thicken, and consequences emerge more clearly, we will also have sight of what is in store on multinational taxation. Coinciding will be an emergency budget here, to correct the public finances on two fronts. 

One will be to rebalance estimates for the remainder of 2020 in light of dramatic additional expenditure on Covid-19. 

The other will be to recut our cloth economically in light of a global economy that has hit the floor. 

It is at that point that our national event on February 8 comes back into sharp focus.

This Government is proving capable of dealing with an unexpected health emergency, albeit one we are still at the early stages of. It cannot, however, bring in another budget, or change economic policy substantially. 

What is to be hatched over the coming days is not what the participants envisaged. It is a hasty remake of it.

What was planned was a three-party coalition, including the Greens, with Independent support for flavouring. 

That, whatever its wisdom, could have mustered Dáil numbers required for the sort of stability required in a besieged fortress. 

But without the Greens, it is precarious from the get-go. Fianna Fáil’s 37 seats plus Fine Gael’s 35 is a total of 72. That is eight short of the 80 required for the barest majority. 

The regional group of Independents, including former ministers Denis Naughten and Seán Canney, now number nine. I doubt eight will still be in the fold on the day of government formation. 

However, others could be found to make up the numbers at the starting line.

And that’s the problem. This government of last resort could happen and it would be the worst of all worlds.

A Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition would be to mistake office for power. For some in both parties the bauble is prized more than the substance or the survival of their party afterwards. 

It is the stupidity and cynicism that serves seed potato as birthday cake to gorge one last time. 

It leaves all who championed what they choose to call “change” outside government; at the moment government must confront actual change as an appalling vista.

In the make-it-up-as-you-go-along school of cobbling together any government, anyhow, it’s hardly 10 days ago since the spin promised that five years of delivery on housing and health would bring about a different political environment. 

That was fanciful then; now it’s black comedy. But regardless, the jostling up to the trough starts today.

Micheál Martin’s haste is easy to understand. Nobody is under more pressure. 

Leo Varadkar is under no such pressure. Time strengthens his position. And in a future government based on a rotating taoiseach, would it make sense in the current circumstances for the incumbent taoiseach to lead on in initially, and hand over after two years? 

If that wasn’t acceptable to Martin, he could baulk and make his case in an ensuing election. But that’s the politics of panic-buying toilet roll. 

The real issue, as identified by the Greens, is that real change requires a broader base, and that requires a bigger vision.

The scale of what is happening has scarcely begun to be realised.

    Useful information
  • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department - if this is not possible, phone 112 or 999 and in a medical emergency (if you have severe symptoms) phone 112 or 999

More on this topic

Dominic Raab to lead daily Covid-19 meeting in Boris' absence as British PM ‘very likely’ to need ventilatorDominic Raab to lead daily Covid-19 meeting in Boris' absence as British PM ‘very likely’ to need ventilator

'He’s in our prayers tonight': Simon Coveney offers well wishes to Boris Johnson 'He’s in our prayers tonight': Simon Coveney offers well wishes to Boris Johnson

Covid-19: Majority of coronavirus deaths are male, figures showCovid-19: Majority of coronavirus deaths are male, figures show

British doctors without PPE report being ‘bullied and shamed’ into treating patientsBritish doctors without PPE report being ‘bullied and shamed’ into treating patients