Following the February election Fianna Fáil engaged in a long drawn out charade of seeking to form a government. It refused to talk to Sinn Féin – as did Fine Gael – and spent weeks posturing. No one believed that a Fianna Fáil government was possible. At one point, under pressure from others in the establishment to end the crisis in government formation, Enda Kenny offered the Fianna Fáil leadership a partnership government. This was a good offer. And a brave one. It was rejected outright. Why?
Fact is there is a genuine nationalist and republican instinct in the grassroots of Fianna Fail. They want a united Ireland. They know the Fine Gael leadership have no interest in this. Neither does its own leadership at this time but that’s another story. An alliance in government between the Blueshirts and the Soldiers of Destiny would leave sections of Fianna Fail voters looking for a new political home. A republican one. Sinn Féin?
So FF and FG in Government was a no go. At least at this time.
But a deal was reached between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to form a minority Fine Gael led government with the help of Independents. Key to this is a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement between the two larger parties in which Fianna Fáil agreed to abstain in the election of Taoiseach, the nomination of Ministers and the reshuffling of Ministers; to facilitate three budgets and to abstain on any motions of no confidence in the government. In return Fine Gael agreed to facilitate Fianna Fáil Bills and implement the policy matters set out in the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement.
Essentially this is a partnership covering all of the key areas of governance including the economy, industrial relations and public sector pay, housing and homelessness, jobs, public services, crime and community services and putting off a decision on the toxic issue of water charges.
Totally contrary to Fianna Fails election manifesto and mandate it puts Fine Gael in power with the support and blessing of Fianna Fáil.
The Fianna Fail leader described this as ‘new politics’. It is nothing of the sort. It’s all about sustaining the status quo. Liam Mellows put it well during the Treaty debate in 1922, when he spelt out the consequences of partition and said: “men will get into positions, men will hold power and men who get into positions and hold power will desire to remain undisturbed…”
However, Budget 2017 also marks another step in the slow, incremental realignment of politics in the South. The common interests of the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaderships crystallised more clearly than ever before. So much so that Fianna Fail never published an alternative budget of its own.
Instead they and Fine Gael have also been very busy espousing the importance of so-called ‘centre ground’ politics. In his speech on the budget in the Dáil the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe said: “Those of us in the middle ground of politics have a duty to show that co-operation and consensus can work; to show that our tone can be moderate, but still convincing; and to show that things will not just fall apart and the centre can and will hold, stay firm and will grow.”
He was followed minutes later by the Fianna Fáil spokesperson Michael McGrath who raised the spectre of the ‘extremes’. According to Teachta McGrath, “the bigger picture is that the centre ground of politics is under attack, not just here in Ireland but throughout Europe, and I agree with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, that there are various definitions of centre ground. When one looks at the alternative, one realises just how vital it is that the centre holds.”
Later in the Dáil debate Thomas Byrne of Fianna Fail returned to the notion of the centrist politics when he claimed that it is the people of Ireland who “are at the centre of our thinking, as are the policies that will make change happen for them”. Fine Gael Minister Simon Harris took time out of his Budget remarks to “agree with one point made by Deputy Byrne, namely, the one on the centre holding. There are many people on the extreme of Irish politics who would not have thought that we could have delivered a budget and who did not do anything to contribute to that process.”
What does all of this mean? At one level it is about using fear -trying to frighten sections of the electorate into supporting Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. At another level its complete nonsense.
Michael Martin made a play for the centre ground of southern politics in a speech he gave to the MacGill summer school in the Glenties in July. In that he warned that it is the “extremes which are setting the terms of the debate” and he spoke of the challenge to “democratic societies”. Ironically in his critique of the referendum debate in Britain, and of the Brexiteers, he exposes the very same strategy that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are employing to try and see off the challenge from Sinn Féin. Martin accuses the British leave campaign of: “the classic scapegoating of an “other” or a “them” who could be blamed for all discontents.” And he claimed that the campaigners in favour of Brexit exploited the idea “that ‘if only “we” took back power and “they” were kept out we could discover a glorious past.’
He said this with his brass neck shining brightly in the warm twilight of a Donegal forum. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? This from the man who has accused Sinn Fein of every conceivable foul deed known to humanity. Operation fear.
At the same time the Fianna Fáil leader is verbally embracing Sinn Féin’s progressive policies. Fairness is the new buzz word.
But Budget 2017 is not about fairness and equality. Nor can its politics end the crises in health and housing; or deliver tax fairness; or end water charges. On the contrary Budget 2017 represents the same old doublespeak and political manoeuvring of the past. There is no new politics just new language for an old story.
The conservative parties remain firmly wedded to an ideology that prefers cuts to capital acquisitions tax for some of the wealthiest citizens in this State rather than investment in the health service. At a time when homelessness is at an historic level and people are being priced out of the rental and first-time buyers’ market, Budget 2017 will simply make matters worse. And the budget allocation for a health service in crisis will not resolve the underlying problems.
And none of this takes into account the huge threat to the economy of this island and to society by Brexit.
At a time when the shortcomings of partition are so obvious the partitionism of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaderships – the status quo and its maintenance – vindicate Mellows prophetic warning.
In the Dáil Sinn Féin is the opposition. In policy terms it is Sinn Fein’s articulation of radical republican politics and policies that is challenging the conservatism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and Labour. Sinn Féin’s politics are embedded in the Proclamation of 1916. We are for economic equality and sustainable prosperity and a new republic which will deliver the highest standard of services and protections for all our citizens. It is these politics and policies that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil fear.