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Fine Gael talks in an accent that doesn’t resonate with everyone

Fine Gael talks in an accent that doesn’t resonate with everyone

The Government is meeting this morning at City Hall, in Cork, but the symbolism of that venue would not protect it from a determined protest by farmers.

The price of beef and a putative €3bn cost for rural broadband are the political crosshairs and Fine Gael is in the sight line.

Then, there is the bigger picture: Brexit; a slowing economy in Germany; and increasing dependence on corporation tax. Local and European elections are three weeks from next Friday. 

Whatever the strength of the national picture for the main government party, they are potentially exposed in hinterlands, which should be Fine Gael heartlands.

Fine Gael has a strong slate running for the European Parliament. It should hold its four seats, but a gain seems very unlikely.

In the 2014 local elections, on just 24% of the vote, Fine Gael lost 105 seats. Any poll number you care to pick puts them in a better place now. It’s the relativities that will matter.

How does its recovery compare to Fianna Fáil’s and who is better-placed afterwards, not just nationally, but in the handful of constituencies where a few votes will put either Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin in poll position in the critical vote for Taoiseach in the next Dáil?

I see that contest being outside the M50 and centred in Munster especially.

There are a series of issues, and then there is their presentation.

The public face and tone of Fine Gael is not just Dublin; socially, it is from the upper reaches of the capital. 

There is a disconnect and a lack of emotional intelligence politically, or perhaps just old-fashioned political cuteness.

Joe Healy, the IFA president, put it today to the Government meeting in Cork that the falling price of beef has cost farmers just over €100m since last September. 

A promised package is not in the post, and one isn’t in sight, either. EU assistance was connected to Brexit, but Brexit goes on and on.

The next EU council is in June. That puts the focus of farm politics back on the exchequer here.

But if assistance must wait on the budget, it could be January before it reaches the farmyard. Every winter, there is a beef crisis of sorts, as farmers sell cattle rather than feed them in sheds for months. 

That big loss of €100m comes down to the more basic fact that every beast is leaving the yard for about €100 to €120 less than it was last September. 

Any slide in sterling brings the price of beef down with it. That’s real politics.

If Joe Healy is the face of one problem, unexpectedly, Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, is another. 

A series of newspaper reports stated that he is pushing a contrary and negative analysis of the cost of the National Broadband Plan being prepared by Richard Bruton’s Department of Communications, Climate Action, and Environment.

Robert Watt
Robert Watt

The Taoiseach came out of his party’s national conference and told RTÉ’s Áine Lawlor that we would have action by Easter.

Godless cynics say he has already missed that deadline. Liturgically, of course, Easter extends until Ascension Thursday, on May 30. So, there is still time.

There is, however, a problem.

Assuming that Mr Watt has authored contrary opinions, this is a good thing and a bad thing. It is good that the civil service speaks truth to power. 

It is a pity, if media reports are correct, that so crude, and likely ineffectual, a means was chosen to do it.

Just over three weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a great Cork man and outstanding civil servant, Pádraig Ó hUiginn, secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach under three taoisigh.

My association with him came after his retirement, when I was a rookie and very innocent special adviser in the Department of Tourism and Sport. Pádraig, by then also a former chairman of Bord Fáilte, was an unpaid adviser.

It was a master class in the arts of government and politics. Sir Humphrey, at his best, was a crude caricature of Ó hUiginn, which brings me back to Watt. 

There are other implements in the tool box besides the sledgehammer. Putting it up to the Government on an issue in which it is so politically invested has the hallmarks of a losing hand. 

The iron hand may be clearly seen, but the velvet glove is missing.

Apart from the fact that advice is simply that, it is likely that any proposal brought forward by Richard Bruton will be stapled to supportive advice from his own officials.

As a citizen whose few cents will be counted among the €3bn, I want to know not just the cost of the project, but its eventual value, and the opportunity cost of not proceeding, which is social as well as economic. 

The weakness of the position of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, if reported correctly, is underlined by the fact that, on reform, it has failed.

The National Children’s Hospital is an example of a systems failure that is ultimately administrative and not political in origin.

That responsibility is political and is due to another, deeper, more far-reaching failure of reform.

Reform of the civil service was on the department’s agenda, but its 2015 report continued the status quo, with cursory add-ons.

The critical one — to have a new head of the civil service — was abandoned upon announcement. So, ministers are still a corporation sole.

She or he who holds the seal of office is the legal embodiment of the department. 

Fine Gael talks in an accent that doesn’t resonate with everyone

It has no other existence in relation to policy. Officials are an extension of the minister.

The system doesn’t work. It, as seen in the National Children’s Hospital debacle, ensures that no one is actually personally responsible in an ever more complex system of public administration.

The Government’s conundrum, politically, is to deliver on issues essential in key constituencies.

All the while, it must keep national policy on track, while communicating the lot in a manner and accent that resonate with the public at large. 

Its increasing enthusiasm for public sector pay over the public interest limits its room for manoeuvre.

The entire ship of state is floating on a 125% increase in corporation tax over three years. 

That is significantly based on an influx of intangible assets into Ireland.

Unlike plants, in say the complex and sophisticated pharmaceutical sector, which, were a decision ever be taken to leave, Ireland could take years to execute, intangible assets could be gone on the next flight.

It’s all a delicate ecosystem. Sneeze and it’s sick.

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