Rebel TDs or just playing politics?
There has been much focus on tensions within the government of late. The important thing is to spot what is genuinely damaging from what is just political game playing. For instance, the recent controversy surrounding James Reilly was particularly damaging and its full effects are still to be felt as many in both Fine Gael and Labour now openly question the Minister’s motives.
On more recent days we have seen a groups attached to Labour and Fine Gael promoting policy positions publicly. The FG one wants us to revisit the Croke Park Agreement. The Labour one wants some form of Wealth tax and more income tax in order to ease the burden of finding more service cuts. Neither of these represents a significant challenge or threat to the leaders of either party. In fact I am not at all convinced by the protestations by both leaders that they wish such things would be said quietly in parliamentary meetings. I think that Messrs Kenny and Gilmore are kept well briefed on what is being said among the party backbenchers and they know what they are willing to let go and what they are not.
This is negotiation, but of a type we have never seen before. Never in Irish history has the electorate given such an overwhelming mandate as it did to this one. When the Dail is full, it is still quite astonishing to sit in the visitor’s gallery and look at the seats fill up with some government TDs sitting on the opposite side to Enda Kenny such are the vast numbers that they command. The electorate effectively voted to have no opposition. Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the Independents are too small even when combined. The reality is even worse for they spend as much time attacking each other as they do focussing on the government.
This is not all good news for the government however. Jack Lynch knew in the wake of a massive electoral victory in 1977 that keeping everyone in his party happy was going to be difficult. In a short period of time he found everything unravelling and rows and arguments becoming more public. However, that was a single party government. The Fianna Fail/Labour coalition of ’92-’94 is a somewhat better example with media leaks and stories often driving the debate within the corridors of power. The difference there however was that Reynolds and Spring never enjoyed the personal relationship that Kenny and Gilmore do.
What we are seeing now is the offspring of this enormous government. It is a new form of communication and negotiation. Fine Gael feel that they are so large now that they are within touching distance of single party government, that their numbers dictate that their policy must win out. They also feel that Labour is too scared to ever walk out on them. Too terrified of what will become of them out there away from the security Fine Gael offers. On the other hand Labour knows that it is losing its soul gradually and that the only reason to stay in government is if they can point to some actual policy initiatives. They need to win something off FG.
Kenny and Gilmore are both restricted. They must maintain the relationship at the top and must also be seen to be very good boys when the troika come calling. The troika hate, and fear, political instability. Any whiff of elections or arguments will be frowned upon. The Labour grouping has done no harm. They are stating policies that many Labour voters would agree with. They are shoring up the grassroots and sending a message to FG that Labour has some serious demands. Gilmore can say that he doesn’t support their position but at the same time turn quietly to Enda and say ‘You see? This is what I’m faced with I need something to give them.’ Meanwhile Enda is no fool, a little club of FG TDs are busily chipping away at the Croke Park Agreement. This appeals to the more right wing and private sector led FG vote. It reminds that vote that FG has not lost its willingness to push the case and be radical. Now Enda Kenny knows that the Croke Park Agreement has only about 18 months to run, that there is little point entering months of negotiations to change everything and face possible strikes that would wipe out the savings in any event. It might be possible to amend it slightly however and make a song and dance. Therefore Enda can wag his finger at the naughty TDs while quietly turning back to Eamon saying ‘you see? I’m going to need something from you; our guys are chomping at the bit here.’
So welcome to budget negotiations big government style. The best advantage of all is that a raft of TDs that nobody would ever have heard of mange to get their 15 minutes of fame to boost their profile. In the end we will probably end up with some minor revisions for the top paid people under the Croke Park Agreement, nothing major, mostly window dressing but it will be hailed as a major victory for FG. On the other hand we will probably get a 1 or 2% increase in the upper rate of income tax. Compromises all round.
Is it leadership? Obviously not. Is it brave? Certainly not. Its politics and the politics of fear at that.