Not even government wants to govern

The real divide in Irish politics is the artificial one, writes Michael Clifford.

Not even government wants to govern

At a recent commemoration for Michael Collins in Glasnevin Cemetery, the journalist Stephen Collins — no relation — spoke about politics in today’s Ireland.

He quoted a former Labour Party adviser, who had remarked that the left/right divide in politics was now meaningless: “the real divide is between parties and politicians prepared to take responsibility for governing and those who believe that politics is about expressing outrage and never taking responsibility for the difficult choices that holding power entails.”

Perhaps. But dig down a little and such a divide begins to fade away. Most parties in Leinster House — including Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats, the Green Party — would love a crack at occupying executive office.

Similarly, most independents would jump at the prospect of propping up a government, in exchange for delivery of a list of constituency goodies. And, as is evident in the current administration, not a few independents would be willing to go the whole hog and join government.

The only cohort in Leinster House unwilling to effect the kind of compromises required by executive office is the so-called hard left of Solidarity and People Before Profit, along with a clutch of left-wing TDs.

These parties have difficulty agreeing agendas among themselves, although petty differences have been minimised in recent years. However, it’s highly unlikely that they would ever want to govern, or be capable of it.

To compromise, as all governing partners must do, is beyond their ken. They consider all other parties in the Dail, including Sinn Fein, to be right wing, and therefore ethically unclean.

So there is a divide, but a pretty insignificant one, considering the size of the so-called hard left, which accounts for 10% to 15% of representation.

The real divide in Irish politics is the artificial one between government and opposition. Those in opposition display the anger referenced by Stephen Collins, but their anger is sated once the electorate and Dáil arithmetic have put them into office.

One shining example of this transmogrification is Eamon Gilmore. When Mr Gilmore was in opposition, I recall having great concern for his health, because he appeared to be angry morning, noon, and night. That amount of anger couldn’t be good for anybody.

Mr Gilmore’s anger was all-encompassing and exclusively focused on the government. There was no placating him. He was the angriest person in the country, bar none.

Then, he entered government and his anger quickly dissipated. Quite possibly, it was replaced with shock, when he saw the detail of the state of the country. (In a role reversal, Brendan Howlin has gotten very angry since leaving government, even expressing anger at decisions made when he wasn’t angry).

Mr Gilmore’s Damascene conversion from angry Eamon to responsible Eamon illustrates that in Irish politics these two positions are not mutually exclusive.

For instance, does anybody believe that an alternative government — say one consisting of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein — would differ in any substantive way to the current one?

What is highly questionable is the desire of any party in office to govern with any conviction these days. Governing requires that decisions be taken for the greater good, even if these decisions discommode vested interests or sections of the electorate. This doesn’t mean decisions that simply hammer the most vulnerable, but actions which may cost political capital in advance of the next election.

Powerful vested interest, a volatile electorate, and the propensity for debate and emotion to be highly skewed on social media have ensured that timidity is the predominant theme in governing these days.

Look at the biggest scandal in the country — the homeless emergency and housing crisis. This week’s news included the deaths of a man and woman who were without homes, the latter living in emergency accommodation with two children.

One feature of government policy has been to avoid discommoding either the construction industry or land hoarders. Solutions have been confined to aspects of the crisis that will not impinge on the industry.

Everything that the Government has tried has been concerned with observing the rights of those who build to turn a buck, while ignoring any social or civic responsibility that should come with being a central player in a national crisis. The main thing is nobody was upset, lest there be some kind of backlash from a powerful vested interest.

The same timidity appears to apply to the public service card.

The card was introduced by the previous government, but is now required to access services beyond the original provision.

The Government should have put the card on a firmer legislative basis, but to do so would involve public debate, and the possibility of a backlash, based on civil liberties.

There is certainly a good case to be made for using the card as it has been within public services. But there is no appetite to make that case, because of fear of the potential for fevered opposition, particularly on social media.

Another issue that popped up on the news agenda during the week was loss-making routes in Irish Rail.

Irish Rail wants to close four routes, including the Limerick to Ballybrophy line, which costs a subsidy of €761 per passenger per journey.

Is that the best use of money for public transport? Is it fair on everybody else that the route, and a few others, are subsidised to that extent?

Once upon a time, a government would take a political hit in shutting down those lines in order to put money to better, often more equitable, use. Today, don’t bet on it.

People might get angry, and anywhere this government sees anger it evokes nightmares of the anti-water charges campaign, which, of course, had its origins in incompetent legislation, rushed through in order to create the least amount of fuss.

And with a volatile electorate, the value of floating votes — which now represent the majority of votes — is greatly increased. Some of the problem can be put down to the Dail arithmetic, but the problem is much deeper than that.

Those who continue to invest faith in the status quo like to consider that the traditional parties represent the centre ground, and are fighting off the irresponsible and angry, who have no interest in governing.

The reality is that right now nobody appears to have much interest in governing, even though most of them would dearly love to be in office.

More in this section

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Discover the

Install our free app today

Available on


Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up


Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.