The Republic are doing things a little differently: joining an EU initiative to procure much needed ventilators, sending an Aer Lingus plane to China for hospital workers’ PPE; the Gardai Commissioner calling for people in the streets to produce IDs, off licences to stay open in contrast with GB. The North at first followed the GB rules but has now fallen into line with the south. The consequences if the northern ban remained in force if a hard Prohibition border had been introduced don’t bear thinking about.
As far as I can judge an eerie near silence has been maintained over the formation of a new government. Despite the corona virus crisis the problem seems chronic. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael between them are effectively eight votes short of a majority and the Greens and Labour are refusing to deal with them. Sinn Fein are still beyond the pale and are self isolating themselves from government formation anyway. The two traditional parties of government were reported as close to agreeing a programme for government for five years. This is simply not credible.
In the Sunday Times Sarah McInerney cogently explains why
We don’t know what Covid-19 will do to our economy, one thing is certain: it’s going to cost us, maybe up to €20bn. Last week the Economic and Social Research Institute projected Ireland would fall into recession this year, with the economy contracting by 7.1%, compared with 5.5% growth in 2019. The think tank gave a grim summary of its vision for the next few months: consumption, investment and net trade would all fall sharply; households would cut spending; firms would cancel or postpone investment; and external demand for Irish goods and services would fall.
In this new, poorer Ireland, Sinn Fein’s plan to spend €6.5bn on housing will not be possible. There will be no pension increases from Fianna Fail, or tax cuts from Fine Gael. The central policy planks of all the party manifestos are null and void. They will not be able to implement the plans for which they received a mandate, and they have no mandate for the measures that must be taken.
The Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin went close to acknowledging this in the Dail last week, when he warned tough decisions would have to be taken by the next government. “The choices will be very different from those we were discussing until recently,” he said.
When this is all over, there will be a new urgency for radical policies to fix our broken health system, and never again leave ourselves so exposed. On housing, too, there will be a change in attitude. Having argued for years that even a temporary rent freeze is unconstitutional, the government introduced one last week. Having resisted banning evictions to prevent families becoming homeless, the government put in place just such a ban. The excuses we have heard from successive administrations about why things cannot be done will not be tolerated any more. The far-reaching legislation that passed through the Dail last Thursday demonstrated just what can be done, when the political will is there. There will also be a shift in the national psyche. Many people who voted for “change” in the general election are now seeking safety and security.
McInerney asks a very good question.
… What authority do any of the political parties have to make the tough choices ahead? A government is supposed to implement the will of the people, but we don’t know now what that is. There will be many different strategies available to deal with the impending recession. For example, should we borrow extensively, or introduce a short, sharp shock of austerity? No doubt Sinn Fein and Fine Gael would advocate different paths. Don’t the Irish people deserve a say in which plan is chosen?
The analysis is good but her remedy for a new general election is unfeasible during lockdown or even under any conceivable medium term relaxation of its grip.
So we are left with the problem. There seems to be no appetite for an all- party national government. The choice therefore seems to be between a minority Fianna Fail/ Fine Gael emergency coalition seeking extra support from independents and anybody willing, legislating case by case when necessary for at least three if not six months; or simply continuing with the status quo. The emergency legislation’s smooth passage sets an encouraging precedent.
Plainly this situation benefits Fine Gael enormously. but it must be creating deep unease inside Fianna Fail and even Sinn Fein. Leo Varadkar won high praise for his TV speech last week– an easy enough gesture indeed but important at a time when people are looking for confident leadership. Now the latest poll looks good for Fine Gael the smallest of the top three parties but the one still leading the government.
A Business Post/Red C poll published today.. has put the party back out in front, harnessing 34% of support among the 1,000 participants of the poll – an increase of 13% on the election result.
Sinn Féin is sitting on 28% of support – up 3% – according to the poll, while Fianna Fáil has experienced a drop in support to 18%.
It’s really weird. Nobody seems to mind. Or if they do, none dare say so.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London