Timing is everything in politics and Fine Gael’s timing is all wrong

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Minister for Communication Richard Bruton at the announcement of the National Broadband Plan appointment. Picture: Maxwells

Timing is everything in politics. There are signs that Fine Gael has got its timing badly wrong again in the run-up to local and European elections, now only nine days away.

That’s two in a row. Five years ago, events over which they had little control were compounded by a series of self-inflicted disasters ensuring a major setback for Fine Gael. Strategically, and as significant for it as a party, was the annihilation of Labour and the resuscitation of Fianna Fáil.

In a single day at the ballot box, the political paradigm which was fundamentally reshaped to its advantage in 2011, was restyled again. Labour — Fine Gael’s most reliable ally — ended up on life support. Fianna Fáil — its only ultimate mainstream opposition — rose from the dead. Its own further mistakes in the general election of 2016 and the electoral collapse of Labour again, left further room for Fianna Fáil. That pushed Fine Gael to the pin of its collar to form a government.

What’s coming on Friday week may be a second-level election and an anaemic turnout. It doesn’t mean it’s a precursor for a general election, but it does shape the terrain on which it will be fought. Given the attention devoted to planning for this poll, and the fact that it is Leo Varadkar’s first electoral test, it is an astonishing state of affairs that €3bn later, rural broadband is the political pothole for the governing party.

Yesterday’s swerve away by Communications Minister Richard Bruton, from the Government’s talking points on the broadband plan to say that, “in light of a lot of interest in this, my officials are talking to the investor to see will it be possible to reveal the exact

figures” means the Government knows its broadband launch has backfired. The ‘this’, of course, is the amount of money the David McCourt-led consortium is putting in, alongside the public investment of €3bn. On Clare FM last week, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed put that at €200m. There may be a reasonable explanation, but there had better be one. With nine days to go, turning this around politically is challenging.

Lots of launches go off half-cocked. But when it’s the curtain call for your own election campaign, it isn’t a rehearsal. Regardless of the results, the bigger issues for Fine Gael are competence in government and political judgement. Both are core attributes and both are damaged.

That’s a problem when your core offering is to be the antidote to populism. To be the thing you scorned most is caricature. Not to be taken seriously, when you talk earnestly, is political death.

The Children’s Hospital was the moment confidence haemorrhaged. I have some sympathy for politicians in Government on this. It was an unreformed and personally unaccountable public administration that let them down.

The schoolboy debating style on the issue when it arose didn’t help, of course. The already-developed habit of throwing officials under the bus instead of manfully taking the bullet for them wasn’t considered good form and wasn’t forgotten either. That brings me precisely to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

In a black fantasy where I was in charge of things, I would only allow ‘Reform’ be used in the department’s title if there was a strikethrough line across the word. It is more than a misnomer, it is fundamentally misleading. The pre-2011 system is intact, with cosmetic changes only. In our administrative systems, political architecture, and, more importantly, culture, we are now fully back at the full baroque of the boom.

Some take heart from the department’s full-throated opposition to the National Broadband Plan. I was astonished, that the opening tableau of the dissenting memo brazenly referred to what was within, as the department’s view.

The department has no view and must have none, other than that of the minster. He, in our lamentably unreformed system, is a corporation sole — meaning that his person is the legal entity which is the department.

It has no other life, and that’s a legal fact and an administrative fiction that secretaries-general go to great lengths to maintain. It’s cloud cover for civil servants.

On the separate issue of what should be the welcome frankness of the secretary general, it cannot be conflated with the ‘department’s’ views because of the fundamental legal fact I have explained.

Secondly, because even to use the term ‘department’ in its loosest sense, implies more than the imperium of one senior official. Officials long ago largely abandoned the once general practice of putting frank advice on paper.

I arrived in government 22 years ago at the very end of an era where you could read back over a file and see the view of officials recorded as it went up the line. What we have on file since is largely silence. That is systemic responsibility avoidance.

Occasional departures, that are conflated erroneously as the view of the ‘department’ is more Napoleonic than transparency. I for one have no idea what the range of official opinion in the Depart-ment of Public Expenditure might be. I doubt I’ll ever find out. If that’s reform, I’m Kim Jong-un.

The KPMG broadband report, underpinning the Government’s decision on broadband, isn’t the first to be discarded by that depart-ment. The Public Service Pay Commission report on nurses’ pay was too.

It said:

The Commission is not persuaded, based on the evidence available, that current pay arrangements are, in themselves, a significant impediment to recruitment

The department paid up regardless, with our money. Further strike days were averted, but a fundamental mistake was made. On health spending especially, but also in giving up hard fought for gains for the State, back to public servants, the public interest and public services are the continuing loser.

On a series of issues, a politically calculating government made tactical decisions in advance of an expected election that never materialised. Those tactical decisions are now a series of strategic mistakes. Looking at Britain and diminishing prospects of a parliamentary majority for any form of Brexit there, a general election here this year seems much less likely.

I think the broadband plan, is possibly the least bad option. The Department of Public Expenditure’s problem is that it’s a busted flush reputationally. That’s a political charge, of course. But I heard no dissent on more public pay for public servants. And that is a much bigger issue economically.

The political problem next week for Fine Gael is that it no longer does what it says on the tin. I don’t think it will have a bad day. After the deluge of five years ago, its existing councillors are well rooted and it has some good new candidates.

Its problem is that relatively, others will do better, and be better positioned afterwards. If, since 2011, you whittled your electoral largesse down to extremely tight margins, that matters.

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