ALISON O'CONNOR: Our politicians are too fearful of public opinion to make decisions

Housing Minister Simon Coveney is running himself ragged appeasing the people. Picture: Marc O'Sullivan

Appeasement politics (as any parents will tell you) results in more tears and higher expectation, writes Alison O’Connor

We are being governed by our own bad temper. If each political era has its mood music, the current one is discordant notes and crankiness. The result is that our politicians are afraid of their own shadows.

In the long term, indeed, in any term, this is not a good idea. Politicians who are reluctant to take decisions (even basic decisions, necessary for the good of the country) for fear of displeasing an increasingly unreasonable public are a recipe for disaster.

As it is, Housing Minister Simon Coveney will have to get himself a cape, a pair of tights, and a portable public phonebox. For it is he who has now assumed the role of Superminister, ready to immediately fly anywhere there is trouble, and reassure the restless and cantankerous natives that he will work night and day to sort out their complaints.

If necessary, he’ll come and collect those damn bins himself, if that is what it takes to placate the anger. For him, it seems to be a choice between that and watching tens of thousands of angry people march down O’Connell St, banging bin lids together in protest.

Apart from the fact that the poor man must be nearing exhaustion, appeasement politics (as any parents of a toddler will tell you), simply results in more tears and higher expectations. Doling out sweeties may be easier, but carrots and parsnips are what are needed. We now have a minority government and a new way of doing business, which is making the situation difficult enough. However, throw a scaredy cat Fine Gael into that mix and we can all see where this is going.

They might be back around the Cabinet table with an extraordinary number of deputies in position of power and prestige, but FG are still suffering post-general election trauma.

The aftershocks from the party leadership’s misreading of the public mood remain strong. Add to that the independent members of the Cabinet and Fine Gael’s need to keep them on board. The party is in terror of rattling any further cages, for fear of a collapse of the Government, and another ballot box outing at the mercy of the vengeful voters.

The party is also in flux in terms of leadership, with no certainty over when Taoiseach Enda Kenny will stand down, and the suspicion that he will have to be pushed, rather than go willingly. The phrase ‘kicking the can down the road’ has been the one most used in the political discussion of recent weeks.

No one is handing out prizes for the handling of the bin charges and the pay-by-weight system. But no more than with water being a finite resource in need of conserving, the principle of the polluter paying for the waste we generate in our homes is a perfectly sound one.

But the suggestion by some — tapping shamelessly into the public anger, which seems to take a perverse delight in being slighted — that our waste-collection system should be nationalised is beyond reason.

In an interview earlier this week, the new Ceann Comhairle, Sean O’Fearghail, said that public trust and confidence in Irish politics were broken and that everything must be done to fix them.

“We have a problem. We need to rehabilitate ourselves, and the system, in the eyes of the public and that’s something I’d be very committed to doing,” he said.

He has a simple amibition, he said, and that is where Joe citizen, sitting in his or her living room, looking at Oireachtas TV or reading a Dail report, “would say, ‘Oh gosh, you know what, they are actually doing a good job. I don’t think that’s an awful lot to expect.’ It is, indeed, a modest and admirable aim, but in the current climate it is difficult to see how achievable it might be.

Even before the general election, many of those who said they were voting for Fine Gael appeared to be doing so reluctantly and certainly with no sense of affection or gratitude towards the party.

The huge delay in forming a government, and the sense that the new government is not capable of delivering anything much, have simply added to the notion of politicians (of all parties) being good for nothing.

It’s not all on their side, though. The bad temper and bloody mindedness of the voters, and the base desire to think the absolute worst of politicians, also play a large part. The simplistic, caricatural belief that practically all politicians are buffoons and only in politics for self-serving reasons has taken strong root.

This is unfair and inaccurate. We only had to witness what happened with the killing of British MP, Jo Cox, last week to see where extreme language, the politics of fear, and an utter disdain for politicians can end up.

The opportunism displayed by those advocating that the UK leave the European Union, from Boris Johnson down, has been breathtaking.

Luckily, we have not had anything approaching the worst excesses of the Brexit debate here, but we’ve have enough of the populist, ‘me fein’ type of rhetoric for it to be seriously corrosive.

The Ceann Comhairle acknowledged that the politicians need to restore public confidence that the system is working in the public interest and that it is focused on the issues that are important to people. He spoke about the political reform that he is hoping to lead in Leinster House.

Given time and opportunity, this could be seismic, but it’s hard to see it happening in the current mood.

How long are we going to sustain this anger? It was entirely merited following the economic crash, and given what we endured during the austerity years.

But we do need to be honest with ourselves, here. If we keep being irrationally angry with our politicians and they keep being afraid to tackle the important issues, while all the time taking a please-the-crowd approach, we end up with the worst kind of checkmate.


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