There was a palpable air of expectation, almost relief, two years ago when the Fine Gael-Labour coalition ended more than a decade of Fianna Fáil’s chaotic mismanagement.
Expectations were high, probably higher than our dreadful economic circumstances would support. That sense of possibility was encouraged by the incoming Government desperate, after more than a decade out of office, to return to power.
In the last two years reality has intervened, bitten very hard and made a great number of election promises even more remote than they might have been. Virtually every project must be judged through an economic prism and, it must be assumed, that the great bulk of administrative energy is concentrated on reviving our economy. Be that as it may it is very disappointing that the reform of our parliamentary system is not more advanced, that it is not the focus of more energy and ambition. After all, we might not have had to surrender our economic independence if we had had a functioning, alert, more accountable and proactive Dáil. This issue may be addressed in the three years left — if the full term is served — and hopefully it will be as it could represent one of the best long-term legacies any government could leave. Not to, especially as this Government has a once-in-a-lifetime mandate to reform, would scandalously waste a golden opportunity.
This Government also promised to root out the age-old stain of cronyism but the shabby behaviour of Health Minister James Reilly, and to lesser extent, Environment Minister Phil Hogan, tarnished an otherwise positive first two years in office. Unfortunately the temptations conferred by power proved all but irresistible and, just as they ever were, ministerial appointments to state boards still seem to be made as much on the basis political loyalties as they are on ability. This is particularly disappointing as both parties had promised to break that incestuous circle.
There is a long roll call of unresolved issues and it might be best to allow optimism prevail for another while and hope that progress can be made on some of the really pressing issues — issues like health provision reform and universal health care, Croke Park II, abortion, surrogacy and right-to-die legislation, pensions, and myriad other polarising issues. The big issues are immediate and unavoidable. Unemployment, especially long-term unemployment and unemployment amongst young people, is one of the great challenges facing this society and the EU in general. It is too early to say if recent positive trends can gather momentum and create work for more of the 440,00 people who need it. This crisis will require resources and imagination to resolve and considerable progress is needed if this Government can be considered a success.
The other issue that cannot be long-fingered is debt, public or private. Convincing the ECB to allow promissory notes be converted to bonds, and the suggestion in recent days that other public debt may be re-engineered with the help of the EU, are the political achievements of the last two years. In the face of often cynical and opportunistic opposition from Fianna Fáil, these achievements tip the scales towards a positive two-year report card for Mr Kenny’s coalition but much, much more needs to be achieved if that rating is to be even sustained much less enhanced.
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