Alison O'Connor: Did your party go running during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Are these not the questions we, in our tens of thousands, would have been asking before the general election if we had the benefit of coronavirus hindsight, the awfulness of which is now in our possession?
Alison O'Connor: Did your party go running during the Covid-19 pandemic?
The Social Democrats have remained aloof of the Government formation talks so far. Picture: Rollingnews.ie

The Social Democrats, the Labour Party and the Green Party would do well to reflect on their respective parties' legacies after the Covid-19 pandemic writes Alison O’Connor

It is the first week of February. You’re on your doorstep, being canvassed by a politician who wants your number one vote in the general election, which is scheduled for February 8.

It was January 21 that Chinese authorities finally acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus Covid-19.

The National Public Health Emergency Team issued a statement on January 30, saying Ireland was well-positioned to detect and respond to a case that might arise here.

However, knowledge of this new coronavirus was nil at that stage.

But returning to the politician on your doorstep. Imagine yourself chatting with him or her about the usual issues, such as taxation and potholes. But then you decide to present a hypothetical scenario.

You tell the politician that you’ve been wondering about a national crisis unlike any other. You’re a bit embarrassed that you might sound over-the-top — you say that, usually, your concerns centre around taxes and potholes — but you plough on, saying that a significant percentage of the population of the globe could be imperilled.

People might die in high numbers. Entire populations would be traumatised.

As a result, societies grind to a halt and the entire global economy faces a recession, if not a depression. This would be a once-in-a-century event.

“I know I’m throwing all this at you now,” you tell the candidate, “but what I am really wondering is would you be available to serve at a time like that?

"Would your party be top of the queue to help all of us, and, more widely, the country, to, firstly, save lives and, secondly, help the country to recover from such a seismic event? Do you think this is the sort of scenario where you’d be willing to serve?”

Are these not the questions we, in our tens of thousands, would have been asking before the general election if we had the benefit of coronavirus hindsight, the awfulness of which is now in our possession?

Would we be satisfied with answers/excuses along the lines of smaller parties in coalition bearing the brunt of the damage during times of economic hardship? Or satisfied that a party’s policies just did not quite match those of the other, bigger parties involved, and that never that twain would meet, not even in a pandemic?

In such a catastrophic scenario, your party might have its own ideas about how best things could be progressed, and if the other parties did not see the wisdom of that, well, what could your party do, except to stick to its guns in a resolutely pig-headed manner?

Just to confuse the timeline, peer into the future, where the politicians of today are being questioned by political science students doing their theses on the ‘Great Pandemic,’ or are being asked by their grandchildren: “What was your role in helping Ireland during its time of greatest challenge?”

It really is that simple. Supporters of the Green Party, the Social Democrats, and the Labour Party might offer a million reasons why their parties should not even consider entering government.

Newly elected Labour leader Alan Kelly. File picture.
Newly elected Labour leader Alan Kelly. File picture.

But how can these even be aired at a time when frontline workers, especially those in healthcare, are risking their lives daily to try and save the lives of their fellow citizens?

In a while, when they finally have time to lift their heads and see what has been going on outside the four walls of their hospitals and ICU units, surely they will deserve a political class that has been expending every effort to ensure that we are as well-prepared for the future as we can possibly be?

They will surely be interested to know what sort of future lies in store for our beleaguered health service.

They’ve thrown shoulders to the wheel, adapted to entirely different work practices, seen the equivalent of a single-tier health service introduced virtually overnight, and simply gotten on with it.

What will they make of that wishy-washy ‘those policies just didn’t suit us, really’ argument? Not much, I think we can safely predict.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have much baggage between them, issues that date back to the foundation of our State.

One of them is bound to be cannabilised by the other, in this arrangement whereby they have agreed to come together in a coalition. But they’re doing it.

For the sake of stability and continuity, they want, and need, a ‘third pillar’. Sure, they can look to the support of Independents, but that set-up would not be as secure as having another party, or two, in there.

Do we really want a ‘bowl of jelly’ coalition when the country is facing such incredibly tough decisions?

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agreed their framework document this week. There was a mealy-mouthed, ‘we’ll take a look at it, so’ attitude from those smaller parties, certainly nothing that could be mistaken for enthusiasm or can-do approval.

The contents of that document are another discussion entirely, but if you’re not on board, you can’t attempt to exert influence for the better.

The Green Party opened the door to a coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael yesterday after a party meeting but Mr Ryan said it is not feasible that his party would enter government without clear commitment to climate action. Picture: Rollingnews.ie
The Green Party opened the door to a coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael yesterday after a party meeting but Mr Ryan said it is not feasible that his party would enter government without clear commitment to climate action. Picture: Rollingnews.ie

I predict that if the smaller parties persist with this attitude, it will come back to haunt them.

No one knows when the next general election will take place, but the last one is recent enough for us to remember the plethora of leaders’ debates and the range of questions that were thrown at the party leaders.

Here’s a challenge of sorts for Labour leader Alan Kelly, Social Democrats co-leaders Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.

Sit down with your various teams right now, and come up with an acceptable and vote-winning answer to the question, inevitably to be put to you in a debate by the leader of Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, or by both: “Where were you when Ireland needed you most?”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald will be able to immediately answer that she tried her best to form a government, but was ultimately blocked by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

The others will have to do some incredible spinning to try and sound anything other than offerers of pathetic excuses.

I predict that if the smaller parties persist with this attitude, it will come back to haunt them

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