GERARD HOWLIN: Credibility will be more important than tactics in upcoming election

The €1bn extra for the health system next year is one of the most wrong policy decisions in years.

The strategic reason Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil sat out the presidential election, is that tactically they did not want to arrive with either injuries or red cards for the real game that starts tomorrow.

That’s when the first substantive meeting to discuss the confidence and supply arrangement which formally expired on budget day, takes place.

On the presidency, they were delighted to feign deference towards Michael D Higgins. He was even more delighted to accept it.

The real issues are when will a general election take place?

Who will walk away first? And for what reason?

If there is an election sooner rather than later, framing the debate is absolutely critical to winning the argument.

Looming in the near background is Brexit. Will there be a tentative agreement in Brussels to allow Theresa May check the fundamental reality of whether there is a majority for anything in this parliament at Westminster now?

This directly feeds into tomorrow’s talks. An agreement in Brussels, regardless of how it travels at Westminster subsequently, is an opportunity for the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, to call time and walk away from the current arrangement here.

When the negotiating teams meet tomorrow, the most intensely scrutinised items in the room will be the clock and the door, not the policy papers on the table.

Rummaging in the minutiae and highlighting obvious failures, as much political commentary does, risks ignoring what has been achieved over the past two-and-a-half years.

Out of the apparent rubble of 70 days of negotiations emerged a surprisingly durable arrangement. It maintained political stability.

It delivered three budgets. As important as the Government it provided, its porous structure where every vote on every bill had to be negotiated allowed for the ventilation of vested interests, and platforms for protest. This shouldn’t be underestimated as a partial benefit.

Much may be due to a recovering economy and people returning to work, but too airtight a construction — or worse the grand coalition lusted for by many then — would not have served us well.

Democracy is messy at best for a reason. We live in times of cultural and economic shift where uncertainty breeds angst.

An accidental arrangement, that gave almost endless opportunity for interests from the worthy to the outrageous have their say, and often to have to be taken account of, was by default a good tool to negotiate change.

We haven’t had a Trump or a Brexit event. I could be wrong, and while I don’t think we have seen the last of Peter Casey, he is much more a showband man than the showcase of a prototype.

The decade unfolding since 2011, is the aftermath of the complete political collapse of an 80-year-old two-and-a-half party system.

It happened in the wake of an economic shock for sure, but it mirrored longer-term social change going back to the 1960s.

It is a what-if now, but would the majorities for same-sex marriage or abortion have been so large if the wider dislocation of established power had not been so great? I doubt it.

We can point to serious failings over the past two-and-a-half years, but the fluidity of the structures created by the confidence and supply arrangement actually served a society-in-change well.

The worst of all outcomes would have been the grand coalition. You only need to look at Germany last weekend to see that.

The unpalatable fact is, in these times a degree of chaos needs to be catered for. Societies need a storm drain.

The critical thing in these talks is the mind of the Taoiseach. It is a job for sociable loners. In the end, take counsel where you may, but you are utterly on your own.

There is a small truism in the remark of Peggy Noonan on her boss Ronald Reagan that the battle for his mind was like the trench warfare in the First World War: Never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain.

The most obvious part of it is the conceit of hired help for a boss who enjoyed an electoral mandate she could never share in.

There are few below stairs who haven’t felt a tinge of that envy. More substantively it reflects a fact that, empty-headed or otherwise, a leader can only seldom, and then only at some risk, disclose their innermost thoughts.

The open mind is best guarded by a shut mouth. Do the four Fine Gael negotiators — Simon Coveney, Paschal Donohoe, Regina Doherty and Martin Heydon — really know Leo’s plans. I doubt it.

The capacity for leadership is tied to successfully negotiating changing circumstances and reacting accordingly.

Unlike the Duke of Wellington on the eve of Waterloo, Leo can’t walk over the terrain he is defending because it is shifting beneath his feet.

Micheál Martin has become adept at playing for time. He had the text of the confidence and supply arrangement on his side of course, but he has taken care to leave no gate open for his opponent to escape to the open ground of an election campaign.

Confidence and supply is a version of siege warfare where rations are allowed through. It is a game of stamina and nerve.

Except, of course, it is no game at all. It is government. Health and housing, to name but two critical issues, are real crises. Housing is an actual crisis in the ordinary understanding of the term.

There is a chronic shortage of homes for people to live in.

This will eventually be rebalanced, but the human and economic opportunity cost in the interim is enormous. Health is much worse.

Unlike housing, there is no shortage of resources. They are simply grossly wasted across a dysfunctional system and held captive by vested interests including hospital consultants and nurses who have never meaningfully co-operated with change.

The crisis in health is, that unlike on housing where there is hope of eventual progress, the only realistic expectation on Health, is for worse.

That €1 billion extra next year, funded largely from unsustainable corporation tax, is one of the most wrong policy decisions in years.

So there is a world outside the room where the clock and the door are being watched so intently and the policy papers risk getting scant attention.

It is hard to think of any effective policy intervention, that wouldn’t be unpleasant for some. It is harder to think of any that will be forthcoming either.

What will be more important for the two parties is which one can better communicate a sense of mission and of a plan. Credibility will ultimately be more important than tactics.

There will be a moment when if not sooner, then certainly by the end of an eventual election campaign people will make up their mind on that.

Ultimately the trick is, there is no trick.


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