Gerard Howlin: Golfgate shows the government has the wrong clubs in the bag

The political confection of the three-party coalition is so synthetic it curdled in the making
Gerard Howlin: Golfgate shows the government has the wrong clubs in the bag

Today Micheál Martin is a nominal Taoiseach, a de facto minister for education and an acting minister for agriculture. Picture: PA

The problem for government is not that it might fall, but that its constituent parts cannot find an exit.

Conceived as political expediency, with unfulfillable promises as garnish, it lacks the authenticity to provide legitimacy. It is not that it lacks a democratic mandate. It has that. The Sinn Féin narrative that this is not the change the people voted for is true to a point. It is certainly not the government people voted for. But we the people don’t elect governments; we elect the Dáil.

The problem is that the political confection is so synthetic it curdled in the making. Fianna Fáil is marking time. Fine Gael is biding time. The Greens hope that time will provide an answer. It won’t because time will run out.

Conceived by Fianna Fáil, or Micheál Martin to be precise, as a tactical response to the strategic disaster of his general election campaign, it is continuation by another means for Fine Gael of its impulse to go into opposition. It is confidence and supply for Fianna Fáil, from Fine Gael, within government; the perfection of power without responsibility.

The series of events that have dogged it since the announcement of its makeup on June 27 are partly a result of that malformation. Their mishandling afterwards is accentuated by the lack of cohesion from the beginning, and a growing lack of mutual respect since.

The Greens, to their credit, have been largely absent from most of the messes. The exception was their minister of state, Joe O’Brien, abstaining on a government motion in a Dáil vote and Neasa Hourigan voting against the Government several times.

No, the Green problem is a relevance which has yet to be demonstrated and association with a project that is losing credibility. What use is an orchestra on a sinking ship?

All of this comes before the Government deals with any of the major issues that confront it. The schools reopening this week, and the Leaving Certificate on Monday week are two examples. And to repeat the blindingly obvious, the real test is on budget day, when push comes to shove on delivering a platinum-plated programme for government, against an economic reality of a shuttered economy.

This is not to speak of the economic transformation required to tackle climate change.

Golfgate is not only the latest calamity for the Government, it is the most serious. As I write, the fate of a European commissioner and a Supreme Court judge hang in the balance.

A second minister for agriculture has fallen through the trap door, and debris accrues by the hour. 

I should say, I called it all completely wrong. Last Thursday night shortly after the story broke in this newspaper, I tweeted “There won’t be any resignations over #golfgate.  So many involved, there is herd immunity.” 

My thinking was simple. If any resignation was entertained, the domino effect couldn’t be contained. That proved correct. It was clearly the thinking of some in government for several hours too, until the following morning when Dara Calleary resigned as agriculture minister.

This crisis is being managed by the hour, with a view to somehow getting through the next 24 hours. There is no sense of this being managed as part of a five-year project with bigger goals and the leadership to deliver them. High office, so sought after for so long, is diminishing many of its occupants.

Today Micheál Martin is a nominal Taoiseach, a de facto minister for education and an acting minister for agriculture. Leo Varadkar is leader of the opposition-in-government. The Greens are in government but have yet to establish themselves in power.

None of this is terminal, but it is all incurable.

At the heart of this is incredible stupidity on the part of the event organisers of the Oireachtas golf event.

The airwaves and social media rightly erupted with indignation and searing stories about physical separation, about people dying alone, the coldness of small funerals with no hugs, and no small social event afterwards. There is a justifiable anger.

There was little enough comment, however, about the ongoing and flagrant ignoring of Covid-19 protocols by an obdurate minority. No, better to focus on an elite.

Ownership of that word is the political interface. It is why Sinn Féin feels empowered to insist that the Bobby Story funeral was not the disregard for public health it blatantly was.

In the war of words, lightning must strike something to enjoy its sense of power. Because power has shifted, and the feebleness of our government is evidence of that, very few at the infamous Oireachtas golf dinner equal in real importance the upper echelons of Sinn Féin pictured shoulder to shoulder at Bobby Story’s funeral.

But as the late, great Belfast comedian Frank Carson put it, "It's the way I tell 'em!" The failure to bring Sinn Féin into government becomes an ever greater mistake.

Populism thrives on charisma. Michael D Higgins has it. So does Mary Lou McDonald. Leo Varadkar enjoys a little. The Greens have something of it communally. It has deserted Fianna Fáil.

This layer of weakness, added to so many others, make it ever more vulnerable to the predations of its partner in government and popular anger on the street. In government, it has not reinvented relevance. It has highlighted a look that is out of date. Our government is one of randomly chosen politicians, manacled together, gnawing each other to the bone.

What golfgate demonstrates is a crisis of governance. It is not that in itself the event is significant. It is that it is another example of increasing failure to deliver stable, centre-ground government, in the face of popular resentment. It is not a specifically Irish issue, but its consequences are being felt.

We are, in popular rhetoric, now on a reputational curve with Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. I don’t believe that is true, but it doesn’t mean it is not a political fact.

Public anger is a sharp corrective, for those - and I include myself - who didn’t get it hard enough, quick enough. But Dominic Cummings, like Sinn Féin, defied the facts.

He is still in power, and they remain somehow on the right side of the argument. Dara Calleary, Jerry Buttimer, Séamus Woulfe, and Phil Hogan apologised. They accepted they were wrong.

But it seems they must be gone. On Hogan, it is absolutely not in Ireland’s vital interests he be dispensed with at this juncture, as Brexit intensifies.

Anger is an emotion, not a policy. It is a searing, engulfing politics. The satisfaction of seeing scorched earth will be short-lived. In another world a few weeks ago, the Taoiseach in an interview spoke of how “social media surges can’t drive policy.” 

“We have to count to ten and stay calm and focused” he advised. 

There was no calm, only competing efforts within government to outrun an anger its own ineptitude had a part in making.

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