Dáil’s bitter and binary rows ignore bigger issues

If there’s one thing the Dáil cover tells us, it’s that the return of politics in person to Leinster House this week will change the way business is done. On Wednesday night, the socially distanced chamber of the Dáil was far more visible than the cavernous Convention Center, and the fierce and personal nature of the Fine Gael-Sinn Féin dealings during the confidence debate was a sign of things to come. This gives the impression of a policy that will be bitter and binary between the two biggest parties.

It suits both to have him like that, of course. But there is enough electoral evidence to suggest that no matter what the media talk this may give, voters know and appreciate the fact that their choices extend far beyond the two so-called duopolies. Fine Gael won 21% of the vote in the 2020 general election; Sinn Féin won 24.5. That’s 54.5 percent of voters who did not vote them. In the Dublin Bay South by-election in June, the two parties combined won 42 percent of the vote. No matter how hard they both claim that the choice is one or the other, voters just don’t buy it.

This fact, as well as the spectacle of the Dáil divided over the week, prompts a number of observations which I think are relevant to the current state and likely future trajectory of Irish politics.

The first is that if Sinn Féin is to lead a left-wing government after the next election, the party will not only have to maintain and improve on its current impressive run in the polls – other left-wing parties will have to improve, too. Moreover, they will have to subscribe to the same general policy platform that Sinn Féin espouses, if there is to be the basis of an agreed program for the government and a viable coalition. In other words, Sinn Féin needs to build bridges with the rest of the left. Given the Irish left’s tendency to bitterly divide – witness the Social Democrats’ fierce antipathy to any discussion of a merger with the Labor Party – one can only say: good luck.

Government vs opposition

The second is that Fine Gael, if it is to continue to play a central role in Irish politics, must make its partnership with Fianna Fáil work. There is a school of thought within the party that suggests it is “too long in government” and “needs a spell in the opposition” to renew and rejuvenate its ranks. Stuff and nonsense. Any party worthy of the name should want to be in government; this is where you do things, keep your promises, make a difference, implement change (for better or for worse). Governments can do; oppositions only speak. The Fine Gael, if everyone keeps their word, will be in government for another 3 and a half years, so it’s early enough to start talking about getting into the opposition. Much like you-know-who, the Fine Gael sought out and was given a job by the Irish. The electorate will not agree too kindly if the Fine Gael, for whatever reason, gives up on doing so.

Any party worth its salt should want to be in government. Governments can do; oppositions do nothing but talk

The third observation is that despite all the noise and fury of Wednesday night, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are more comfortable facing each other than facing the challenges and choices facing the country. The truth is that the country will have to make fundamental decisions in the months to come as to which path it wishes to take, both nationally and internationally. Sinn Féin and Fine Gael don’t really want to talk about themselves: they’re happier kicking each other. But that doesn’t mean that the choices and decisions will disappear.

There is taxation: as Paschal Donohoe’s wrinkled forehead attests, Ireland is under relentless pressure on its corporate tax system. Reports in The Irish Times This week, the fact that pharmaceutical giant Abbott continues to use a structure using Dublin and Malta to avoid (legally) taxes has not gone unnoticed in EU capitals. Donohoe and the government soon face massive decisions with implications that will last for decades.

Military capability

There’s defense: Whether we like it or not, Irish neutrality as we know it is also likely to come under pressure as EU members push for more defense cooperation. The unilateral exit of the United States from Afghanistan has confirmed for many EU members the need for a European military capability, which will be politically difficult for any Irish government. But just because it’s complicated for Dublin doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s commitment to Sláintecare has always been a mile wide and an inch deep

And at home, there are also difficult choices to make when it comes to health. The recent resignations of Sláintecare executives show a program that – perhaps understandably after the pandemic – stutters at best. In truth, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s commitment to Sláintecare has always been a mile wide and an inch deep. This has been extremely useful as a way to neutralize health as a political issue: the answer everyone gave to every health question during the last election campaign was “We will implement Sláintecare”.

But on the politically difficult elements of the reform program – such as the elimination of private health insurance benefits – the two old parties, and many of the senior officials, have been clearly reluctant. But if this government, or any other, wants to move forward, it will have to move forward by turning the screws on private health insurance.

The array of tough choices ahead in climate action alone could fill a column. Just like the budget choices that are looming. But nobody wants to talk about all this. It’s easier to talk about trash with other guys. At one point in Wednesday night’s trade, someone shouted loudly “Bulls ** t!” That’s about it, okay.

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