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Depressing and uncertain

Uncertainty over Water, dependence on good faith of Fianna Fáil and opportunistic Independents, policy incoherence and likely Events augur badly for new Government arrangement

After almost seventy days wandering in the political wilderness the two largest parties have finally agreed a programme with a 30-month timelimit. As Village was going to print the programme was being supplemented with whatever concessions are necessary to attract at least eight independents into the Fine Gaelled minority administration in a ‘Programme for Partnership’. But it was clear that it is a broadly centre-right deal.

This reflects the largely indistinguishable ideological orientations of the two parties and sets out a range of proposals on the economy, public-sector pay and services, jobs, housing, crime and water. A fiveyear strategy for the health service is presumably intended to avoid the annual Health Services Executive cost overrun which destabilises budget planning. 

Among its principles, the document has Fianna Fáil agreeing to permit the election of a Taoiseach and cabinet, to facilitate up to three budgets and to abstain or vote against on any motions of confidence in the government, its ministers or significant financial measures. In return, Fine Gael agrees to publish any deals it makes with Independents or other parties, allow the opposition to present bills without government obstruction and avoid policy surprises. Crucially, it accepts “that Fianna Fáil is an independent party in opposition and is not a party to the programme for government”.

This particular figleaf is presumably intended to allow Michael Martin to pretend to his party members and supporters that he is not responsible for whatever the government does though Fianna Fáil has effectively written much of its agenda. In other words, Fianna Fáil is hoping to maintain its position of lead opposition party while ensuring that Enda Kenny, or whoever replaces him within the coming 12 to 18 months, sticks to implementing the policies contained in the eight page document.

Clearly the agreement cannot include provision for the unexpected events that are certain to erupt over the coming three years or indeed for the outcome of the Brexit referendum in Britain, the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe or the outcome of the uneasy compromise on water provision and charges.

The water can has been kicked under the bridge but will still cast a shadow over the minority government which will have to deal with the recommendations of the expert commission it will establish within eight weeks of its appointment and which will have until early next year to compile its report. The outcome is the ultimate in political fudge since the findings will be put to an Oireachtas committee and then to an Oireachtas vote sometime in the late Spring of 2017 if the timetable is realised.

With the certainty that any proposed charging scheme will be opposed by a majority of TDs and senators the policy programme has included a convenient contingency which states that “those who have paid their water bills to date will be treated no less favourably than those who do not”. Realistically this signals the end of the shambolic charges regime imposed by Irish Water and the outgoing government and its probable replacement in a subsequent budget by a new household/property/utility tax.

All of this hinges on the willingness of Fianna Fáil to allow this new dispensation where it seeks to influence the policy direction of the government, including a budget division of 2:1 in favour of public services over tax cuts, while sitting on the opposition benches posing as an alternative administration in waiting and dreaming of the next election result when it hopes to increase its tally of TDs to the mid-sixties.

Martin and his more far-sighted colleagues also know that there is no longer a likelihood of any single party gaining a majority to allow it form the type of government Fianna Fáil used to dominate and are prepared to envisage a similar arrangement next time around, with FG as the facilitators. It’s either that or full-blown coalition with the blueshirts.

However, they are also watching their backs and know full well that Sinn Féin, the other left parties and independents who do not sign up to Kenny’s temporary little arrangement will not give an easy ride to the new minority administration, and are certainly not obliged to.

Equally, those independents who join government, mainly of centre-right disposition – or of the well-known disposition that allows the sacrifice of left-wing principles for a seat, or influence, at the cabinet table – are likely to get nervous if events don’t work out as planned.

A failure to realise their ambitions, whether local or national, as the minority government totters unsteadily towards its near-three-year termination date will mean almost certain defections from the depleted ship of state. Add to that the potential for industrial unrest, as workers demand a greater share of promised recovery, continuing anger over the homeless, housing and health crises and general dissatisfaction at a weak administration unable to cope with big issues like climate change and international developments and you have a recipe for uncertainty.

Not a lot to look forward to.