A year of reckoning for the coalition

Throughout its term in office, the Coalition has dropped the ball, picked it back up again, made promises, then backtracked. Can they make it across the election 2015 finish line? Mary Regan reports

THE political mantra that it’s all about “the economy, stupid” has been much used by analysts and advisers to describe what will shape the course of Irish politics in the year ahead.

The country’s slow emergence from a long, painful period of austerity, and how parties respond to this recovery, will most likely determine the outcome of the next general election.

And with most TDs preparing themselves for a general election in late 2015, the Dáil term which kicks off today is set to be a defining one.

As they start positioning themselves for an electoral cycle, the political parties may well remember the other part of that famous mantra which placed the economy as the major concern of voters.

It was part of a three-point plan from Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign. Hung up in his campaign headquarters was a sign bearing an election message which read: “Change versus more of the same; The economy stupid; Don’t forget the healthcare!”

Although it’s a different country and a different time, those three messages devised by Clinton strategist, James Carville best described where the battles of the next general election would be won and lost.

Change versus more of the same: One of the biggest problems for the Coalition parties in the period of drift that best describes the last Dáil term, was the feeling that they had turned their back on the democratic revolution promised to the people.

Controversies surrounding the treatment of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe and the removal of discretionary medical cards without any warning, gave rise to a sentiment that all they had to offer was the same old politics as usual.

The Taoiseach’s earlier pledges to enter into a covenant with the Irish people to tell them the truth was completely undermined by his failure to reveal the full facts surrounding the resignation of the former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan.

And the withdrawals of discretionary medical cards from adults and children with serious disabilities or life-threatening illnesses highlighted just how out of touch the Coalition had become.

Alan Shatter resigned as justice minister and crocodile tears were wept over the medical card fiasco, prompting hope among frustrated Government TDs that a line might have been drawn under those two controversies.

But they would be foolish to think that the issues are behind them.

Fresh allegations about penalty point cancellations have emerged in recent days and the handling of them will prove an important test for the Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald.

Her predecessor, Alan Shatter, is taking a High Court case seeking to quash parts of a report by Sean Guerin on the handling of whistleblower complaints, which brought about his resignation. Hearings are due to take place in October.

The Dáil is due to debate the findings of an internal review of the Department of Justice which was published during the recess. This will afford the opposition a chance to raise questions about the events leading up to the resignation of the former Garda commissioner, Martin Callinan and the Taoiseach’s role in that.

The coming weeks will bring a fresh new start with a reshuffled and rejuvenated cabinet. But some of the same questions surrounding the handling of justice matters and the Coalition’s honesty with the people are unlikely to go away.

The economy, stupid: If the May local and European elections taught us anything, it was that austerity has not yet finished leaving its mark on the Irish political landscape.

The first phase of the political fallout was seen in 2011 when Fianna Fáil suffered electoral losses never before seen by a Government party.

The second was seen in the May local and European elections when Sinn Féin broke the mould to become a major force in Irish politics while independents became more popular than any individual party.

The third phase is more likely to be defined by economic recovery, which will be of more benefit to Fine Gael and Labour who have avoided any destabilisation pitfalls which were threatened after the voter backlash for both parties in the May elections.

The budget in four week’s time will be far more palatable than what has gone before, and the Coalition parties will push the narrative that they have pulled the country back from the brink and put it on the road to recover.

Their task, however, will be managing expectations that there might be any giveaways, or talking-up economic recovery when it is not being felt by people around the country.

Sinn Féin is likely to continue to argue that austerity has not worked for everybody and should have been dished out in a fairer way — a message that will continue to have resonance with the electorate.

The more the economy dominates the political agenda, the worse it will get for Fianna Fáil, given how it left the country’s finances when they departed office in 2011.

Another problem for the party will be the beginning of hearings by the long-awaited banking inquiry which will hear from its former leaders, Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern.

Don’t forget the healthcare: With its credibility on economics diminished, Fianna Fáil is likely to keep the focus on that other major issue of concern to voters: healthcare.

Micheál Martin set the ball rolling this week with a stinging attack on the Government’s handling of the health budget, saying officials had “cooked the books” and produced a “fraudulent” financial plan for the service.

His comments, at his party’s think-in, followed reports that the head of the HSE warned the Government about the effects of further cutbacks to the health service.

Minister Leo Varadkar rejected his accusations yesterday, insisting patient safety had always been a priority for his Department.

In a significant radio interview last week, the new health minister signalled that major promises of health reform made by his predecessor were unlikely to come to pass.

He said that James Reilly’s timeframe for abolishing the HSE in 2014, was “overambitious from the start”.

Free GP care for everyone by 2016 was a key promise of the current Coalition when it came into office in 2011. This timetable had already been altered to promise free GP care for children under six this year, people over 70 next year, and all school-going children by 2016.

Mr Varadkar appeared to row even further back on the promise, saying: “I don’t want to put a deadline on it because I can’t.” Asked if children under six would have free GP care by the end of the year, he said: “You can’t say that for certain; that depends on how the talks and negotiations go with the Irish Medical Organisation.”

The Taoiseach was quick to slap him down and insist that promised reforms should be delivered on.

But the reality is that much of the health commitments promised in the Programme for Government will not be delivered on by the next general election.

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