Will it last? Will it last? I’ve been attending functions all over the place all week, and every person I’ve met has asked that same question. I feel like Dustin Hoffman in the film, Marathon Man.
You remember Hoffman in that famous scene? He’s strapped into a dentist’s chair, and Dr Christian Szell, the Nazi dentist (played by Laurence Olivier), is hovering over him with a vicious-looking metal probe.
“Is it safe?” Szell keeps asking, before inserting the probe into Hoffman’s un-anaesthetised gums. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll never forget that scene, and “Is it safe?” has become one of the great movie quotes.
I don’t know the answer to the question any more than Hoffman did. Now, lest I get too mixed up in my metaphors, I should add that the question I’m being asked all the time is about the Government (not about Dr Szell’s diamond collection, which is what the movie was about).
Will the Government last? That’s the issue on everyone’s mind right now, and what’s fascinating me about the question is that everyone who asks it is concerned and anxious about the answer. They really want to know.
Not that they’re huge fans of the Government (you don’t meet too many of them, these days), but there’s a sudden feeling that we may be on the brink of political volatility and uncertainty.
I’m tempted to say, if I could borrow another movie quote (I might have been watching too many old movies lately), I’m getting to the point where, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
A little political volatility may not do us that much harm, and it may sort some of the wheat from the plentiful chaff that’s about right now.
But the idea that we might, by accident or default, end up in a general election sooner than we all thought, has people worried. Sure, they think the Government has made a bags of everything, but they don’t want anything to happen that might damage the fragile recovery— and people are worried that a snap general election might have that precise result.
So there are conflicting emotions right now. People think the Government is a mess, but the economy is on track. They keep saying they’ll never vote for that “shower” again, but they don’t want them replaced by what they regard as crackpots or chancers.
And that’s a real fear. Not so much the individual crackpots or chancers, but the grim reality that if this government falls, the ensuing election could result in chaos.
People could well decide that the only way to vote in an election would be to vote against — but they could all wake up the following morning wondering what the hell they had done.
So, first of all, will the Government last? Well, there is an old adage in politics, and I’ve quoted it here before, that no government is ever as stable or as unstable as it looks from the outside. Sometimes, a government looks as solid as a rock, its majority secure, but there’s a timebomb ticking away under it.
Other times, a government seems to totter from crisis to crisis, but there are people beavering away in the background to keep the show on the road.
When this government was elected, it had a huge majority. It was clear, from the beginning, that it was going to have to do difficult and unpalatable things, but it had the great advantage of being able to afford to lose 30 or 40 seats in an election and still survive for a second term.
Right from the off, therefore, it looked good for re-election.
And every expert would tell you that if, somehow, the Government could restore our sovereignty and get us back to reasonable economic growth, those chances would improve by the day.
But the opposite has happened. They have succeeded in what they set out to do, and they look certain to lose the election. They have confounded the odds.
That’s because of a year of political mismanagement. Shattergate, the McNulty affair, the medical card fiasco — they were all precursors for the most grievously mismanaged political situation I can remember: The introduction of water charges.
It’s not just me who has been saying they are running out of time to get this right. I’ve heard a succession of government representatives, ministers, backbenchers, and MEPs all saying the same thing in public. And if that’s what they’re saying in public, just imagine what has been going on behind the scenes at all the interminable, and very angry, private parliamentary party meetings of the last few weeks. That alone must be taking a considerable toll on the party leadership, which seems to be floundering in the search for an answer.
Let’s assume they get it right. They’re not going to please everybody, but there are questions about affordability, management structures, PPS numbers, certainty, investment, and waste that they have to be able to answer. If they can put a coherent package together, and unite around it (another big if), they can at least hope that a majority of reasonable people might be prepared to give the system a chance.
Until the next political cock-up. Because that’s another one of the old adages of politics — when a government becomes accident-prone, it tends to stay that way.
Which is why people are beginning to worry. As the normal approach of an expected general election begins to be replaced by the drift towards an unplanned one, different choices crystallise.
People are wondering about the rise and rise of Sinn Féin, and (back to the movies again, this time The Fly) they’re afraid. Very afraid. Could it be a coalition between them and Fianna Fáil, to the equally frightening sound of the Terminator saying “I’ll be back”?
Or a huge collection of independents, all jockeying for position and trying to reconcile hugely mismatched policies — it would remind you of that really scary moment when Roy Scheider turns to his equally mismatched colleagues in Jaws and mutters: “you’re gonna need a bigger boat”.
It’s very hard to figure. I suppose I still believe that this government, if it can put the water issue to bed, still has a chance. But only if they can maintain decent economic momentum, if they can demonstrate unity, discipline and good judgment, and if they can really prove that there is an economic dividend in terms of the kind of social policies that make a difference in people’s lives.
In other words, they have to cut out the stupid mistakes and start governing like an administration that cares. Above all, in the time that’s left, they have to craft a vision for the future that people will respond to. In short, if you’ll forgive one last line from the movies (The Godfather): They have to make us an offer we can’t refuse.
Time will tell if that’s beyond them.