GERARD HOWLIN: Dáil status quo secure for now, but Fianna Fáil is waiting in the wings

The party took an electoral hit for a combination of wanting economic credibility and political empathy, Gerard Howlin.

ENDA ABÚ. The man has his mojo back. More pertinently he has snipers and successors back in their box. For many the box is ministerial office, which affords all the comfort and some of the latitude given to free-range poultry. Better stay there then. Any next outing is likely to be a roasting, and reincarnation as political carrion. A solid middle ground within the Fine Gael parliamentary party has a vested interest in stabilising the status quo, which for now is Enda. Remaining snipers, as Brendan Griffin found out, are too few and isolated. Potential successors in a depleted parliamentary party, within a precarious Government, dare not move precipitously for fear of bringing the Government down. They cannot move rashly either, without fear of leaving the potential support required, for the leadership they seek.

That is only to speak of Fine Gael, Enda’s last line of defence. Supporters of the status quo consist of virtually every member of the Dáil, for now. Many, including Sinn Féin, the Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, and assorted oppositional independents deny it. But they protest too much. At least, they protest with the certainty of having a safety net that their protests will not bring the House down — for now.

The curtilage of the unlikely edifice Enda has built from the debris of the once grandest government in the history of the State, or at least the one with the largest majority, is Fianna Fáil. Renewed, larger, and intent on government at the next election, it wants to play for time and it must. Its next move, if it gets it right, will be the general election, with a return to power and Micheál Martin in the taoiseach’s office. Were this to happen, it would be the comeback of them all.

But for now, that is putative, if tantalising. With 24% of the vote and 44 seats, six of which are in Dublin, it made dramatic strides last February. However, those six seats in Dublin are both a significant gain and a shallow foundation. They must be stabilised, solidified, and built upon. This takes time and a simultaneous widening of the base. That is why the party has washed its hands, Pilate-like, of a water charge. Yes, if you read the fine print, it is a matter of policy for now, not of principle forever. There may be a time when Irish water, having acquired the restorative qualities of Oil of Olay, may be charged for, but not yet, or anytime soon.

Posturing against a water charge is about solidifying its six seats in a left-leaning Dublin. How diminishing the taxbase brings anything left in the longer run is another matter. It is the lesson too for Fianna Fáil of losing out on a Dáil seat by 35 votes in Dublin South Central. Water charges did in for Sinn Féin in the famous Dublin South West by-election. The resultant dynamic, and growth of a more radical left, has permanently hampered it since. Fianna Fáil is determined not to be left stranded by public outrage. Their plan is to keep abreast of it, reassure middle Ireland by taking pro-business stances on issues such as Apple, and wait. The combination of needing time and innate caution will prompt Martin to wait until this Government is brought to the vet, out of mercy, before putting it out of its misery.

There is a further dynamic supporting the status quo that is Enda: The Independents in Government. Attention to John Halligan, a perennial and potentially self- imploding notice box, belies the consistency and solidity of all other Independents in Government in one critical respect — their enjoyment of office. Issues aside, their lack of management to date and the conspicuous lack of a modus operandi within Government to deal with them, one single issue does unite them, and that is a determination to run this Government for the longest term possible. In turn, this bolsters Enda. Those same Independents have no strategic interest in a change of leadership in Fine Gael, which might precipitate an election or hasten one.

Some look back now on the demise in office of Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern, Albert Reynolds, Charlie Haughey, and Jack Lynch and see an end in failure recurring politically.

But that is telling the story backwards and fails to understand the difficulty of taking out a taoiseach. Most attempts ended in failure. The office is a bulwark and that bulwark is Enda’s now, in unique and complex circumstances that will likely further assist him.

Just as Fianna Fáil has fastened on water charges, the other side of that coin is currency for Fine Gael, if the party seizes it. I don’t mean actually reintroducing water charges, of course. That is impossible politics in this Dáil. What a campaigning Fine Gael could do, to speak effectively to those who walked away from it but might return, is trumpet the principle of a user-pay charge, without suffering the political cost of reintroducing it. The party, however, has proven inept at campaigning.

It won a majority in 2011, the size of which was due almost to its opponent’s unpopularity. It lost most of that newly found support in 2016, in circumstances where, even if losses were inevitable, the scale was avoidable. Harrumphing now about how louche Fianna Fáil is on water charges is less effective because the party itself abandoned the principles on which it governed for four years, in the run-up to the election.

A supplementary estimate of €1.7bn before the budget, to permanently increase the spending base accordingly, puts all the palaver about Apple in the ha’penny place. The main thrust of an ineptly articulated Fine Gael electoral offering, to return USC by the wheelbarrow full to taxpayers, is as of this week now off the cards.

So the party took an electoral hit for a combination of wanting economic credibility and political empathy. Now those Dáil sets are gone and the money promised to save them is off the table. But that was then, this is now.

Fine Gael could speak persuasively to between one third and half of the population in a conversation based on people paying their way. Water charges are symbolic of that agenda.

So too would delivering investment in third-level based on a combination of fees and loans, as would auto-enrolment in pension schemes for all workers, starting with the largest employers.

Enda has artfully seized on circumstances to sustain his leadership. He believes Brexit is mission- critical for the country and he is right. But the political reward at home, for work done in Brussels is paltry; especially salvaging a least worst outcome.

The challenge for Fine Gael, one it never seizes in Government, is sustaining a wider conversation with the electorate. It may yet be a case of après moi, le deluge after Enda.


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