Gerard Howlin: Change will come at a price for parties in any new government

The virus makes a non-Sinn Féin government more plausible to put together, but more difficult to deliver change with, in office, writes Gerard Howlin

Gerard Howlin: Change will come at a price for parties in any new government
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with party colleagues speaking outside Leinster House last month. Using the crisis to form a government is mission critical for his survival as party leader. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

We are in the opening stages of the greatest expansion of State power since the Emergency. What were essential civil liberties — to go and do as we please — will be sharply curtailed.

The only protest likely is from those who say this is too little, too late. What the lasting residue will be is impossible to say. But, after tumultuous events nothing is ever exactly the same again.

The politician busiest ensuring that this crisis is not wasted is Micheál Martin. Unloved by many of his own colleagues, and unwanted by some, his hand is strengthened. He will remember the political near death of his patron, Charlie Haughey. In extremis repeatedly, the Boss clung on to be rescued by events, his own bloody mindedness and the gentility of his opponents.

Alas, for Fianna Fáil, the scale of those great dramas will now never be repeated. This is drawing room drama, off the main stage. But it is ‘mission critical’ to Martin. Clearly it is now game-on between him and Leo Varadkar.

By the weekend, or at the latest by next week, we are heading towards a concerted effort to construct a four-legged stool, consisting of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens and the regional group of nine independent TDs. For now that consists of Sean Canney (Galway East); Denis Naughten (Roscommon- Galway); Michael Lowry (Tipperary); Peadar Tóibín (Meath West); Verona Murphy (Wexford); Noel Grealish (Galway West); Peter Fitzpatrick (Louth); Cathal Barry (Kildare South); and Matt Shanahan (Waterford). Politicians are correctly appealing for calm. But the canniest of them are artfully exploiting the scare — for government formation at least.

What a week ago looked like a fading mirage now looks more likely. But the complexity of what’s involved politically, the political management of each group internally, and the as yet unrecognised reality that the resources supposed to be there to fund ‘change’ is in fact a fading mirage now, have to be managed successfully.

There is plenty of room for failure. That is why Martin is busy. This is mission critical for his survival as party leader. Now coronavirus has intervened as a political event. The prospect of a national government was always predicated on the alternative being impossible either because it couldn’t be agreed, or if it was it couldn’t be carried successfully within its component parts. The odds have tilted back in its favour.

The real political value of coronavirus has yet to come, however.

After a putative agreement is reached, there will be no Árd Fheis style mass gatherings. We couldn’t, you see, for health and safety reasons. However, democracy is essential, so, on this occasion, it will operate like transubstantiation. It may look and feel like a stitch-up but in truth it is the purest expression of political will. You simply need the faith to believe.

And there is another trip switch. It’s called momentum, which was slipping away from Martin.

Gerard Howlin: Change will come at a price for parties in any new government

If he has a deal to sell, sufficient of his TDs will pull their punches, rather than disqualify themselves from preferment in a government they ideally wish were constructed otherwise.

Only the nation state is powerful enough, has the apparatus, and is local enough in a health crisis.

The efficiency and relevance of the supranational organisation or the global corporation is strictly limited for now. A sign of that is the shift in the centre of gravity on coronavirus from the Department of Health to Government Buildings.

With the exception of Haughey who engorged his department with more power and responsibility on arrival in 1979, most taoisigh begin their time clearing out the detritus of their predecessors only to accumulate their own clutter. Just as only the State can face up to a major health crisis, within it, only the Taoiseach and his department can effectively coordinate the State. One department can ask another. Only the Taoiseach and his officials can command. That power of command is itself limited.

It is ultimately based on the political authority of the Taoiseach among his colleagues, not his limited constitutional prerogative as first among equals. It is always the rough heft of politics that moves things in government. To be effective, its objects must be carefully chosen. Taoisigh learn over time that many of their priorities are chosen for them. Events are a call that must always be answered. Coronavirus is one such demand.

When a government is formed, be it what is being attempted or a national government subsequently, the nature of the ‘change’ to come has to be completely reimagined. Here the challenge gets worse and worse.

Sinn Féin’s success was not in winning an election; it was in winning the competition to shape the public conversation. They defined change. They also priced change at €14.5bn over five years in contrast to a Department of Finance estimate of €11bn being available over the same period. Other parties took the €11bn figure and supposedly shoehorned their proposals into it. The Sinn Féin proposal is allegedly grossly under-priced and unachievable. What matters now is that it’s all nonsense.

We were heading into an economic slowdown anyway. Germany and Italy seem headed for recession and that was the benign scenario before coronavirus.

Those of us who lived through the roaring noughties will recall that piece of economic porn called the ‘soft landing’. Nobody ever enjoyed it, and hopes of one now are much diminished. It is not that we should be startled by stock market gyrations, it is that while an economic crash like 2008–09 is highly unlikely, recession is not.

The ‘change’ required is not the fantasy politics of the recent election, it is a downward change in expectations that completely challenges the prevailing public mood, or at least the move that prevailed until even a few days ago. To centre much greater emphasis and expenditure on housing within more modest means, means significant displacement of other expectations in return. Now we will count the real cost of Paschal Donohoe’s budgets in 2017 and 2018.

The floor for public expenditure was overly inflated. Our room for manoeuvre is proportionately circumscribed since. It was all foretold. Now it has come to pass.

As the virus passes through the body politic, some effects will be transformative. On the one hand, if a government of almost everybody except Sinn Féin is formed, it won’t be in circumstances its constituent parts planned for before the election. In keeping Sinn Féin out, they need to imitate its headline policy on housing in government. But the tide is going out economically.

So the virus makes a non-Sinn Féin government more plausible to put together, but more difficult to deliver change with, in office.

Happy, therefore, the office holders who will serve in such a government. Theirs — if not the Kingdom of Heaven — will be for a time, a passing share in power on earth. But for their colleagues on the backbenches, the great majority of those who will be embraced in this arrangement, ‘change’ will come at a price.

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