Gerard Howlin: Muppet Show politics is damaging to the national interest

There is no answer to what ails Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is now its own greatest danger, writes Gerard Howlin
Gerard Howlin: Muppet Show politics is damaging to the national interest

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has talent as a tactician. He has the poise of a skilled political practitioner. It is far from clear what his strategic purpose is, however. Picture: Julien Behal 

THE greatest danger to Fine Gael now is itself. Its rise and rise as the hump in the middle of what’s left of the centre of Irish politics is apparently inexorable. 

Yesterday’s statement on national radio by Fianna Fáil’s former deputy leader, Éamon Ó Cuív, that his party needs a new leader, was confirmation, if needed, of the political abyss into which that party has walked, eyes wide open. 

Sunday’s RedC poll showing Fianna Fáil on 10% was another viewing platform towards the same vista. The mistake is to think something important has happened, or that a great shift in allegiance is in train. It isn’t.

On February 8, the real shift happened. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined got 43.1% of the vote in the general election. That was down nearly 7% from the 49.8% they won in 2016. 

Sunday’s poll put the two together at 45%. That’s a tincture more than on election day — but essentially nothing has happened to concern you and me. The two formerly largest parties had 53.5% together in 2011. Fine Gael’s 36.1% then was almost its finest hour.

Garret FitzGerald got 39.2% in November 1982, but it was a different world. On the same day, Fianna Fáil got 45.2%.

The apparent preeminence of Fine Gael in the shrunken centre belies two facts. Whatever its opinion poll numbers, Fianna Fáil is, by two seats, the larger party in the Dáil. 

Nominally, it is Fine Gael’s equal in government.Secondly, Since the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011, Fine Gael has been well set several times, but blew it every time.

Leo Varadkar was to be the antidote to Enda Kenny’s electoral ineptitude, but he conspicuously failed to deliver on election day.

If there is no apparent answer for what ails Fianna Fáil, there are several reasons to question Fine Gael’s capacity to capitalise on its promising position. 

The first is its usually inexhaustible supply of hubris. It is Fianna Fáil’s genius to have captured all of the opprobrium normally available for the junior party in coalition, but none of the kudos of being in possession of the Taoiseach’s office. 

It is accident-prone, and its acting out of power has been abysmal. 

Fine Gael — and, specifically, Leo Varadkar — sense this and continue on, to quote Brian Cowen on the PDs, as if this is a temporary little arrangement.

The point is, that that is exactly what it is, politically.

However, if that is the politics of it, the consequences are greater and, unlike last Sunday’s poll, do impact you and me. Covid-19 is one fact, a deeply depressed economy is another.

We are weeks away from knowing whether a hard Brexit will add to our woes. 

There is no reasonable construction of events that doesn’t add up to the certainty of the hardest winter since the depths of the last crash, but accentuated by the pandemic. 

In this scenario, Fine Gael’s playbook, since this Government was formed, has been to put the party first, and the common good a poor second.

Fianna Fáil ministers may be easy to make fools of, but I object to the insidious political game of kicking the shins of Government colleagues as they do their work, in the public interest. 

If there are mixed messages coming from the Government on Covid-19, a primary cause is the abandonment of the previous perfectly good plan, by the outgoing government which initiated it.

Better, they said, to accelerate reopening.

That premature loosening of the reins, largely it seems for political opportunity, was the first and fundamental mixed message. We are living with the consequences since.

Schoolboy games of slyly kicking your classmate, just as he is asked to stand up in front of the class to give his answer, is Muppet Show politics. 

It is corrosively damaging our national interest, at a critical moment. 

I don’t mind if the Tánaiste and his colleagues regard Fianna Fáil ministers as fools. I object to being treated as one myself.

ON Monday, in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fine Gael allied with People Before Profit to vote in favour of a 15% reduction in the local property tax rate. They didn’t have the numbers, so they didn’t win.

Local property tax is a Fine Gael project, introduced along with water charges by Phil Hogan, then environment minister. He was seized of the necessity to apply a key lesson from the crash, and fundamentally widen the tax base. 

Regrettably, water charges are now a dead letter. We would be in an appreciably better position if we had such a charge. On the property tax, once Hogan left, the reforming zeal in Fine Gael diminished. 

Michael Noonan put a review of the rates charged on the long finger, and Paschal Donohoe repeated the dose. 

All that is left is an anaemic charge which is unevenly applied, and on scales that are increasingly out of synch with property values.

The point of these charges is now either forgotten, or brushed aside. They have a fundamental economic purpose in ensuring we are never again overly dependent on one source of tax.

This must be true because Fine Gael told me so.

Now, as the country spirals back down into debt, to sustain current spending, we are repeating the noughties. The tax base is too narrow. 

Rapidly increasing public debt now, instead of private debt then, risks becoming unmanageable. That was the clear message from the Department of Finance officials this week. Debt is our Achilles heel.

Fine Gael insist that taxes won’t rise, but they signed up to a programme for government that cannot be delivered on our current tax base. 

Everything is trending negative, but there is no deviation from an increasingly unbelievable party line.

An alternative version, which I do not rule out, is that there is no real intention of delivering on a lot of that Green stuff in the programme anyway. 

There will be a glimpse of the truth on budget day. 

In a year’s time, it will be gaping hole in the current narrative. In the meantime, in county councils, it’s game on, if that is your preferred pastime.

Leo Varadkar has talent as a tactician. He has the poise of a skilled political practitioner. It is far from clear what his strategic purpose is, however. 

Discombobulating Fianna Fáil colleagues in Cabinet is like the cat playing with a mouse. He might remember that that is a spectacle most of us choose to turn away from.

He might also recall that the political insularity of his circle failed again for Fine Gael on February 8, as it failed before in 2016. Maybe the next election will be third time lucky for Fine Gael.

Fianna Fáil is working hard for that to happen. But this is all old hat, being played out in a new age. It simply matters less, as time goes on.

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