Government struggles to survive one crisis as another appears

It is in the gritty detail of difficult policy decisions that lies the ultimate test of character. In that regard, there is more going on this week than the main headlines indicate, writes Gerard Howlin

Government struggles to survive one crisis as another appears

“IT’S THE little things that trip you up” was Albert Reynolds’ rueful reflection on the events that unseated him in December 1994.

On Monday night, after Sergeant Maurice McCabe’s solicitor’s statement demanding a tribunal held in public, instead of a commission of inquiry held in private, the political system exhaled.

Still, through Monday night, and in advance of yesterday’s delayed Cabinet meeting, the air was thick with talk of the McCabe crisis.

In fact, that crisis had passed, albeit temporarily and only after a fashion.

There will be much more of course.

Not least will be terms of reference and whether Supreme Court judge Peter Charleton is available for the longer haul of a tribunal.

That is not to mention time and costs.

But, politically it’s sorted, sort of, for now.

Within the Government, it had already been replaced by another crisis.

Attention this week on the Dáil has focused on the Sinn Féin motion of no confidence in the Government.

The ‘little thing’ that preoccupied Government now, was the Fianna Fáil motion tabled for last night on the North-South electricity interconnector.

It would provide security of electricity supply, particularly to Northern Ireland where there will be serious issues by the start of the next decade.

It is one of the few all-island projects that has the wholehearted support of the DUP.

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That’s not to mention climate change.

It is estimated that greenhouse gas emission produced by the electricity system should fall by approximately 2.6% by allowing greater renewable integration.

So to keep the lights on in Belfast, to save the Earth or a least make a contribution, it’s a must-do. So far everyone is agreed, but only sort of.

The Government chief whip, for one, isn’t agreed that it should be built overhead.

On December 22, Regina Doherty was so stirred she said on RTÉ: “We are about to enter into a phase of civil disobedience to hamper the decision made by An Bord Pleanála and I fully support the farmers and landowners in that action.”

So there you are. Her fervour is such she pledged to walk out of Cabinet rather than see 299 pylons built across the north-east.

If Doherty loses her Dáil seat in Meath East, where Fine Gael has two of the three seats, her Cabinet seat will be an irrelevance.

This is about holding what, for now, is a second Fine Gael seat, on threadbare margins in a declining market for Fine Gael.

Through Monday night and Tuesday morning, the Government was apparently preoccupied by McCabe, and believed there was a lot of work to do on the detail of that.

In reality, the new pressing political challenge was to keep Doherty on board, in the face of the Fianna Fáil motion demanding that “no further work is done on the North-South interconnector until this analysis and a full community consultation is completed”.

The analysis in question would be another one, after the last study, which embarrassingly didn’t come up with the right answers.

But, no matter.

The trick is to keep asking the question until you get the answer you want.

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All, including Fianna Fáil, excuse themselves by saying that of course they know how important the interconnector is.

It’s just that they want it underground.

It would cost a multiple, but the multiple required has allegedly fallen with technological development.

Anyway, in our multi-seat system, even small lobbies can sway the outcome of the last seat, so needs must.

Fianna Fáil is playing political games with a project and a policy that, in its origins, is its own.

Fine Gael, on the back foot, has as a chief whip the person charged not just with holding the line, but drawing it in the sand — a politician apparently seconding national interest to political survival.

In the lead-in to yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, her colleague Heather Humphreys, albeit with a much safer seat, was similarly engaged.

In the event, Doherty and Humphreys agreed to a Government counter-motion which supports a further analysis, but critically not at a cost of holding up progress.

So apparently nothing happened.

It was all a what-if.

The tranquillity of Government continued. Except that momentarily it had been a matter of concerted attention and concern.

These, of course, are not especially extraordinary events.

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It’s all part of the business as usual of politics, where competing interests and motives are constantly mediated and refined.

Occasionally, as in the McCabe case there is a major rupture to the status quo, and entrenched interests are deeply disturbed.

Like the effect of scandals in the Catholic Church, the cumulative impact on An Garda Síochána will be change-making, but only over a longer term that is only unfolding.

The political play on the North-South interconnector is classic stuff, of the old school.

There is enough in the counter motion to allow all concerned on the Government benches continue on the Government benches.

For now.

Every opposition, even ones apparently gaining ground, overreach in their promises and protests.

The repeated fanning of outrage during the crash, by Labour in opposition, was the quicksand it immediately sank into in Government.

There was no refinement possible of what had been said then that could equate with what was done subsequently.

Labour in office was doomed literally as it began.

Now the positions Fianna Fáil is adopting, first on water charges and subsequently on the North-South interconnector, will come back to bite, should it be in government.

One is essential to widen the tax base, and providing knock-on fiscal capacity for essential investments that cannot depend on a user charge.

The other is needed for maintaining secure trade in energy with Britain.

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In addition, the Single Electricity Market is essential for the island and a Brexit priority for Ireland.

Much has been heard this week, and heard loudly, from Sinn Féin on where it stands on McCabe.

It wants an election.

It will be of interest to see, after this column goes to print, what that all-island party has to say, and how insistently it says it, about the North-South interconnector.

Politically positioning on major scandals is actually the easy stuff.

Shylock’s whispered aside against Antonio in the Merchant of Venice was: “I hate him for he is a Christian/But more for that in low simplicity/He lends out money gratis and brings down/The rate of usance here with us in Venice.”

It was Maurice McCabe’s original sin to have disturbed the petty corruption of colleagues that led ultimately to monstrous crimes against himself.

It is ultimately the ‘rate of usance’ enjoyed by those who provide it, that provokes their backlash against those who will disturb it.

It is in the gritty detail of difficult policy decisions that lies the ultimate test of character. In that regard, there is more going on this week than the main headlines indicate.

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