GERARD HOWLIN: Change is as much about the electorate as it is the government

It’s an odd thing that on the one hand everything proceeds on from the enormous fact of the economic crash but, conversely, almost nothing has changed, writes Gerard Howlin

THERE will be scant public sympathy but the past six months of hiatus, have been very wearing for the body politic. Some attention has been given to those demoted, or who failed to be promoted. But spare a thought for the political underclass of oompa-loompas, whose master’s demotion meant the end. Once merely nameless, they are now placeless. But such is the wheel of fortune.

The grind over months, from New Year to July, working unsociable hours often away from home, sustained too often on either the wrong sort of food or food eaten at the wrong times, is wearing. There is the endless process of meetings, votes and playing tactically hour by hour, while trying to remember what exactly the strategy was you started out on in the first place. There is the fundamental issue of climate change by which I mean the increasingly hostile and dismissive climate politics exists in.

These past six months brought the added stress of waiting and waiting for the end. The year began with a revived Enda Kenny who, unlike Theresa May, re-established an uneasy balance of power within his own party, after a disastrous election campaign. He seemed
momentarily to be looking beyond immediate survival. But it was not to be.

The patina of longevity was stripped away in the minutes after 1pm on Sunday, February 12.
Arriving literally breathless into RTÉ’s This Week radio programme, he gave a version of events surrounding Katherine Zappone’s meeting with Sgt Maurice McCabe which significantly differed from the version she conveyed to him. It was a moment of self-immolation. Like all euphemisms the term “car crash” interview is overused. This time the hyperbole earned its keep.

It’s testimony to the man’s nerve and sense of self that it was Wednesday, May 17, before he announced his resignation. It was Friday, June 2, when Leo Varadkar became the leader of Fine Gael and Wednesday, June 14, when he became Taoiseach. Senior ministers were appointed that day. Junior ministers, a week later. Committee chairs, last week.

It has been months of process, much of it fairly stressful for the affected. You may have little sympathy but, on reflection, you will recall that days when your job was on the line, or a significant promotion in play, were not your most relaxed.

This political churn within Fine Gael, the main party of government, also affected the entire system, from the opposition to the civil service. Interregnums are what it says on the tin, not much happens except positioning.

The now-ended interregnum overlay a uniquely inter-locked Dáil. Only 14 pieces of legislation have been enacted this year, two of them were private members’ bills. That parliamentary distinction belongs to Labour’s Senator Ivana Bacik and Fine Gael TD Tony McLaughlin. Only one other has cleared the Dáil and that is Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty’s. It’s before the Seanad this week and could make it up to the Áras for the presidential signature before the recess. Fianna Fáil’s James Browne has a bill on mental health reform tabled for final consideration in the Dáil on Friday. The Government and Sinn Féin seem set to support it, so it may go to the Seanad next. It’s a short list.

The lack of legislative activity, which is grossly overrated as a barometer for delivery, reflects perfectly the election result we decided on. It’s an odd thing that on the one hand everything proceeds on from the enormous fact of the economic crash but, conversely, almost nothing has changed. As a country, we owe an astonishing €200bn which no wishful thinking can inflate away. On private debt, we are the fourth most indebted in the eurozone, and in hock for a notional average of about €31,000 each. We are doing well in reducing debt, but the overhang is huge. That’s just the bills we rang up, and most of it was on current spending, not bailing our banks.

If debt is one reality, a sea change in attitudes is another. It was well underway before the crash.

The clergy went over the edge first, but pretty much every residue of authority went afterwards to one degree or another. So on top of a mountain of debt, there is an attitudinal hangover.

It’s a perverse tribute to resilience that so little has changed. The National Economic Dialogue, two weeks ago, was, in more ways than one, an eerie reminder of the past disasters of an utterly discredited social partnership.

But, in Dublin Castle, it was as if nothing had changed.

Without exception, every “partner” proposed more ways to spend more money. You could not make it up. There they all were again, history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. If you wanted a matinee version of the same melodrama you could have gone to the Citizen’s Assembly in Malahide for the last two weekends as they considered thoughtfully the challenges of an ageing population.

Then all done, 78 of our fellow citizens voted on a range of options, some of them sensible. Except there is one lacuna. We the citizens have never voted for a Dáil capable of taking on the vested interests required to implement real change in how we fund our old age.

Depressingly, the net political issue will come down to the size of the increase in the old age pension. Willie O’Dea kicked off that caper last year, and Leo Varadkar in the Department of Social Protection, who wasn’t up as early as Willie that morning, simply rolled over and said yes, here’s a fiver all around. Ultimately, babies are the best investment for old age.

There is no need for the Government to get into the procreation game but birth rates are the essential floor for capacity to support the dependent in society. Investment in policies that support children and parents, will ultimately be the better payoff in an ageing society.

But there is no real engagement in that sort of substantive thinking, and if the fiver all around on the old age pension is only emblematic, it’s a good emblem.

The real issue of capacity in the political system comes now.

Today, the summer economic statement will be published, and the countdown to the budget
begins.

You will hear a lot of nonsense about the Dáil going on holidays this Friday. In fact, it’s the last best chance to think reflectively on policy, to visit with constituents who will otherwise scarify their TDs because they haven’t seen them, and yes, to get a good holiday too.

Regrettably, there hasn’t been enough rest or reflection in the political system. Constantly scurrying to emphasise with the latest protest group or to outwit the competition tactically, is grist to the mill.

But, in the end, there is a requirement to focus on just a few key deliverables. For this Government, it has until budget day to do that. 


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