Alison O'Connor: Government formation talks - Parties mull over seismic societal changes due to Covid-19

If ever a glittering trophy turned into a booby prize it is that of getting into Government. The prospect of running Ireland Inc for the foreseeable future must make even the strongest political stomach turn.
Alison O'Connor: Government formation talks - Parties mull over seismic societal changes due to Covid-19

If ever a glittering trophy turned into a booby prize it is that of getting into Government. The prospect of running Ireland Inc for the foreseeable future must make even the strongest political stomach turn.

Almost two months ago we had political parties in virtual hand to hand combat attempting to win the prize of power in a country with largely rosy prospects, albeit that there were significant challenges on the horizon.

Now all has changed utterly. The snails pace of negotiations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is gathering some momentum. One well-informed source speculated this week that realistically it would be May before all is done and dusted in terms of the involvement of others to make up the numbers, and then to get the agreement of party members.

That will be a significant point but there won’t be any celebrating. One of the first things to be considered, for instance, will be just how long to continue with the Covid-19 payments, and how much possibly to cut them back. On just one day this week the Government says it paid out €11.5 million to the more than 30,000 employers signed up for the wage subsidy scheme.

If we thought it was unusual to be handed down a Budget last October that contained, for instance, a historically limited social welfare package, we can surely look forward to some more of the same.

There are soundings that the two main parties do not wish to go down the austerity road to deal with the Covid-19 fallout, that it would simply be too much for people, but whatever tack they take it won’t be fun.

Undoubtedly there will be a post Covid-19 bounce once restrictions are lifted but the way the epidemiologists are talking about it now, there may be no certainty of anything until a vaccine is developed, and even then there are the issues of making it in sufficient quantities for everyone, and distributing it globally. There is the possibility of restrictions being lifted, but possibly having to be enforced again at different levels.

Added to that is the different approaches being taken by different countries — a fact we are acutely aware of given the direction of the UK, especially in relation to testing. How, in time, will we all interact with each other? If I understand it correctly it looks as if the UK are going to have a horribly high death rate but at the end they will have far more herd immunity — a phrase that has taken on such horrible intonations. Will we want them, will they want us? Who knows? Similar applies to the situation with the US.

As Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are acknowledging in their negotiations, in terms of a future approach, we are a people already deeply psychologically scarred from the economic recession who are now faced with a one hundred year pandemic.

What were the chances? How could we possibly come out of this experience without being fundamentally changed as to how we want to live our lives and how we want our society to operate? The memories will fade, but what will remain is a bone deep sense of this time for all of us who lived through it. It will make its way into the foundations of our subconscious and trigger us, not always in ways that we will even be aware of when it is happening.

Once we are allowed will we even want to crowd into the High Street for a little retail therapy? Where will consumer confidence lie when the consumers are possibly suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome?

Further down the line, a few years maybe, how might we react if it was suggested we make cutbacks to our public health budget, the sector of medicine which is key to fighting any pandemic? Might we be more amenable to higher taxes to sort out our public services now? Will we prioritise family life more in terms of work and salaries?

Who knows? But politicians who are considering going into government must be considering these questions and wider ones. How much will people want and expect them to push on with a single tier health system now that we’ve made such strides towards it, already achieving in weeks what Sláintecare would have done taken years to do?

What will happen with our increased ICU capacity and ventilators? What about all the doctors and other health staff who have returned home to work on the frontline of the Covid crisis — do we attempt to entice them to stay?

What about the housing situation, will advantage be taken of the inevitable drop in land prices, or the weaker hands of developers in terms of the profits they demand?

If ever there was a case of not wasting a good crisis to get done what would not normally ever happen in ordinary time, then this would be it.

It is human nature that, running on adrenaline and almost universal praise, Fine Gael ministers would want to keep going in the manner they have been in recent weeks. Without doubt they took a long time to lick their wounds after their drubbing in the general election, given the coronavirus was coming at us so quickly. But once they turned their minds to it they have excelled. The human reaction, despite the exhaustion, would be to want to continue.

A Fine Gael source told me their current judgment is the legitimacy of what the Government is doing is accepted by an overwhelming majority of people at present. However they realise that sentiment could turn at speed, the greater the difficulties encountered. “There are very few at the top of Fine Gael who believe this time of acceptance can be maintained.”

Who knows when this might occur — better indeed to have a government in place with a mandate at that time. But getting from here to there, and exactly how is best to go about that feels like a question above everyone’s pay grade.

However, while you might have opted for a career in healthcare without ever anticipating putting your own life on the line, then the decision to opt for high political office would surely never have encompassed trying to form a government during such surreal and difficult times.

But that is where we are at right now. I write that conscious that it has never been easier to be the journalistic hurler on the ditch, whose only “risk” is to sit at a computer in a home office or a trip to the supermarket.

If there is a prize to contemplate it is being remembered in the history book as the people who stood up and gave leadership when it was so sorely needed.

How could we possibly come out of this experience without being fundamentally changed?

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