GERARD HOWLIN: Complex issues will make political landscape uncertain for all parties

Gerard Howlin thinks ahead about politics in Ireland.

The Dáil session which began yesterday lasts until early July. It will likely see the retirement of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach; the election of his successor; and a cabinet reshuffle.

Those changes will disrupt a dynamic, virtually intact since 2011. Brendan Howlin may be a party leader only since last year, but he has been a main player for much longer.

Micheál Martin, Gerry Adams, Paul Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett are established, stalwart interlocutors of Kenny. Familiar antagonisms will shortly be dislocated.

The critical issue for Sinn Féin is whether Gerry Adams steps back from nominal leadership, in what is a key strategic decision for his party, before another election.

Changing leaders, however, is froth on the surface. There are big decisions to be taken over the coming months by the Government, in parallel with changes of personnel.

A report from the Public Service Pay Commission is imminent. That leads into public sector pay negotiations. It is the Government’s ambition to have an agreement, before the summer.

Complex issues will make political landscape uncertain for all parties


The pay deal, if possible, becomes the floor for serious work on Budget 2018 in October, and a mid-term review of the capital programme.

In parallel with that programme of work, Fianna Fáil will seek to revisit the confidence and supply arrangement it negotiated in 2016, and demand action on issues it considers to be in deficit. Those are the pieces of the jigsaw on the table.

Brexit, abortion and Northern Ireland are just three known unknowns. Enda Kenny’s delivery last week on Brexit, is an encore that snatched reputational victory from the jaws of last year’s electoral misfortune.

It goes to demonstrate the power of possession, in the hands of a determined player. A 70-day formation of government, was an epic scrambling from the rubble. Simply to survive, was an achievement, and one some in his party were determined he would not enjoy. But, it underlines the scale of the challenge facing his successor.

The first election the party won since 1982 was in 2011. In circumstances where there was ample willingness to be rid of Fianna Fáil in 2007, they couldn’t close the deal. The scale, if not the fact, of electoral victory, which did come in 2011, owed to the implosion of Fianna Fáil.

Complex issues will make political landscape uncertain for all parties

That advantage was squandered in political ineptness. A new leader has to articulate a vision that resonates beyond the hedges enclosing well-manicured lawns. That’s a caricature but one that echoes, because it is largely true.

Delivery of policy objectives, including a public sector pay deal, depends on circumstances and are drivers of them. Within weeks there will be a ballot on the proposed resolution of the Bus Éireann dispute.

If the agreement is voted down, then an all-out transport strike in State-owned transport companies is possible. That would be a much larger political challenge than Bus Éireann alone. It wouldn’t bode well for easy resolution of a comprehensive public service pay deal either. But in politics, it is on such things that events turn.

What is at stake in the public service pay talks is enormous. There are interconnected challenges:

• Firstly, to keep spending within prudent parameters.

• Secondly, to ensure that growth in current spending is checked to enable capital investment in essential infrastructure.

• Thirdly, to police the share-out of current spending as between public servants and public services.

These are major political hurdles, within the Government and between the Government and Fianna Fáil. That is not to speak of vested interests waiting for the arrival of the wildebeest at the watering hole.

Close reading of the Labour Court recommendations in the Bus Éireann dispute is instructive. It proposes voluntary severance for 120 drivers, 48 clerical staff and 22 managers. That’s just the head count. Proposed changes in work practices beg the question of what return in terms of public transport provision, the taxpayer was getting for the scarce commodity of public subsidy.

To mention another issue: only half the estimated €300 million for a new national maternity hospital is accounted for. The rest awaits the outcome of the review of capital spending. There are a lot of unhatched chickens.

If arrived at, a pay agreement is not simply the basis for a reviewed capital plan, and a budget. It is the basis for fiscal policy, including manoeuvre on taxation, while Brexit runs on, and President Trump attempts to push tax cuts into law.

It’s macro-economics. It colours the big picture as it changes, and we will likely have an eventual election. It’s the basis of our medium-term strategy, just at the juncture we don’t know what our long-term circumstances look like.

In the meantime, events continue. It seems Shane Ross’s bid to have a lay chairperson preside over a judicial appointments process with a lay majority will come to cabinet shortly, and be enacted by the summer recess. This may make it easier for Fine Gael to manage transition within government.

Complex issues will make political landscape uncertain for all parties


If new politics is an unfortunate choice of words, now synonymous with a bad name, it will shortly produce one small pearl. There will be a successful job transfer of the role of minister for state in charge of the Office of Public Works, between incumbent Seán Canny and his independent colleague Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran during this Dáil session.

When done, it will be the first successful rotation of ministerial office in the history of the State. Hardly a premise for a rotating Taoiseach, but precedent none the less.

Progress on a swathe of issues will define the wider context for a referendum on the 8th amendment. In a referendum, the public mood frequently feeds into voting intentions.

The breadth of recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly leaves the Government with a dilemma. Whatever the text of the question to make it onto a ballot paper, it is a debate that is beginning in earnest now. It will continue until a putative polling day, and will affect the standing of parties with different types of voters.

The choice for a new taoiseach is to pass a budget and go to the people in October. That would be brave. It would put Fine Gael TDs in a position where they would have to define themselves in relation to change on the 8th amendment.

A variation would be to have an Oireachtas committee that reports sooner rather than later and have a referendum in the autumn. It is doubtful at this stage, if that’s practical politics.

The alternative is to follow the recipe on the tin, and work on for a third budget. An intervening event which causes an election anyhow would be the iceberg beneath the surface.

There are only complex issues, with no simple solutions. This, however, is nothing new. It’s called government. The underlying political challenge is to give a sense of purpose, and to convey belief that one thing leads consequentially to another. It’s called narrative.

Politics is the business of hope. When it’s done persuasively, it’s a credible plan.

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