AN air of anxiety, anger and anticipation falls over the Dáil chamber today as it finally returns from its 12-week-long summer slumber to embark on what is likely to be the beginning of the endgame for this phase of slump politics.
Brian Cowen has allowed a healthy majority of 13 to wither away to nothing, ensuring it will be a white-knuckle ride for the coalition down to the December budget – if it makes it that far.
Smart money has shifted to a March general election, but Mr Cowen has developed a tendency for living dangerously and the edges of his contracting coalition are detaching themselves from his convoy as it sinks into the economic sands.
The Government came close to falling in July over stag hunting and dog breeding due to localised self-interest, and Fianna Fáil fury at the Greens’ perceived policy greed.
Such shakiness does not auger well when the expected €30bn-plus cost of Anglo is finally revealed and the country braces itself for the fourth austerity budget in a row and the threat of a double dip recession.
But political bitterness is an equal opportunities activity and hatred hangs across all sections of the House with the bad romance between Labour and Fine Gael deteriorating even before their planned post-election marriage of convenience as Eamon Gilmore is accused of flirting with Fianna Fáil.
The open back-biting erupting between the would-be partners in Government sets the backdrop to a roller-coaster Dáil session which unleashes a three-way party power battle that Ireland has never witnessed before.
Fine Gael’s attempt at a Dáil version of total war with its refusal to offer vote pairing to ministers except for EU summits was spiked on its first sortie as Labour stepped in to play the statesman and let the Tánaiste leave the country to drum-up education business in the US while neatly shafting an emasculated Enda Kenny in the process.
We are now a long way over the Rainbow that fought the last election in partnership, and both opposition parties are locked into an unseemly scramble to grab the fabled pot of gold that would be topping the popular vote next time out.
The two latest opinion polls showed a huge disparity in the Labour vote – well ahead on 35% in one, well behind in third place on 23% in the other. The main reason for this divergence appeared to be the strength of Sinn Féin which rises as Labour falls.
This presents a tricky dilemma for Mr Gilmore as he must court those to the left of Labour while hanging on to its new swathe of middle ground ex-Fianna Fáil supporters as well.
In a fit of pique at being made to look so foolish over trying to block the Tánaiste’s trip abroad, Fine Gael has resurrected the spectre of Labour getting into bed with Fianna Fáil as Alan Shatter makes the rather racy political point that: “Labour cannot resist the Fianna Fáil embrace.”
But Labour was nearly smothered by that embrace in 1992 and is in no hurry to return to it – a feeling the Greens can empathise with as they seek to break free of the Fianna Fáil hold themselves.
The Greens know they need an exit strategy if they have any chance of avoiding the wipe-out the polls predict.
A ban on corporate political donations looks the most likely trigger for trouble with Fianna Fáil – and the Green outrider of outrage Dan Boyle has already tweeted that backbenchers in the larger party cannot cherry-pick the bits of the programme for government they choose to endorse.
Yet, an increasing number are playing that very game with their own Taoiseach as the inter-opposition snarling is only matched for self-motivated manoeuvring by the SMS – save my seat – messages being desperately pumped out by Government backbenchers as they scurry to curry favour within their constituencies.
PD-turned-Independent Noel Grealish clearly sees cutting himself loose on the on the issue of proposed local health cuts as his best hope of re-election, and FF backbenchers must decide whether they go down with the ship or try and swim for safety on the tide of championing a cherished constituency concern.
Mr Cowen’s administration is already, technically, a minority one and he no longer possesses the political authority nor the fear factor needed to keep his troops in line.
Some Cabinet colleagues see the Taoiseach as an expendable political embarrassment only kept in place because no one else wants to inherit the mantle of almost inevitable heavy defeat he would bequeath if they moved against him.
The last Dáil session almost smashed apart and into an emergency general election not on the big economic issues of the day, but over bizarre crises that exploded from nowhere like the status of breeding bitches and Willie O’Dea’s attempt to smear a political rival with talk of a brothel.
This time out the Oireachtas atmosphere is even more fevered, the loathing more pronounced and the destination still more uncertain.
The 30th Dáil is dying before our eyes. Few will mourn its passing.
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