Government unfit for office, opposition unfit to take over
The abject state of Irish politics rarely has been as vivid as in the last week (leading up to 18 January). Fine Gael is still reeling from a ludicrous internal spat regarding what may happen after the election and it will reel even more from the feebleness of its leader on the number of candidates running in constituencies (running too many candidates guarantees the party will fail to take seats it otherwise would win). Labour is in disarray over the issue of possible coalition with Fianna Fáil after the election. While the government parties are giving as telling an illustration as it could of its unfitness for office over the citing of the new children's hospital.
Meanwhile almost nothing of substance is being debated, merely managerialism – which lot could best manage the running of the country, with no discussion on what objectives they might have in so doing.
While a change of government from Fianna Fáil-PDs to Fine Gael-Labour plus others would result in almost no chance of policy, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that the crowd on the opposition benches would be any more able to manage ministerial portfolios than the present incompetent lot, a change of government would be healthy. Too long in office makes a stone of the heart. Time is up for Fianna Fáil and the PDs, although the opinion polls suggest that this is not necessarily the view of the electorate.
But that the alternative should be as dismal as Fine Gael and Labour are showing themselves to be at present is, well, dismal.
Pat Rabbitte became leader of the Labour Party on the promise that if elected he would never put Fianna Fáil back in office as Dick Spring had done in 1992. He stuck by that promise for a while and then began to waver. As we report on pages 26 and 27 in this issue of Village, John Bowman extracted from him on 8 January, after a lot of evasion and wriggling, the statement: “I will not put Fianna Fáil back in government. Now is there any part of that you don't understand?”
A few days later, on Sunday 14 January, he could not bring himself to repeat that commitment, he failed again in an interview with the Irish Independent and as if to hammer his equivocation home, his evasions are to be read on his party's website (www.labour.ie).
If it doesn't matter whether Labour will put Fianna Fáil back in office after the next election, why did he make such a big stand on this before the last election (when he said that so opposed was he to another Fianna Fáil-Labour government that he would refuse to serve in one) and why did he campaign for the leadership of his party on the issue? Why now the equivocation? If we can't believe Pat Rabbitte on an issue he himself made central, what can we believe him on?
The handling of the children's hospital issue is almost breathtaking. Of course the issue is bedevilled by turf wars between the competing hospitals and of course there are vested interests at play – isn't that always the case? But if a clear-cut decision had been taken on evidence that was persuasive, then the turf wars and vested interests could have been brushed aside.
We are now left with an impression that somehow Bertie Ahern has manipulated the issue to the advantage of his constituency and the hospital with which he has personal associations, while seeking to give the impression that he had doubts about the site of the children's hospital on the Mater grounds from the beginning – why, if that was the case, did he write in 2002 to Micháel Martin, the then minister for health and children, and advocate a national children's hospital on the Mater site?
Bertie Ahern has an extraordinary capacity to tell whatever constituency he is addressing that their concerns are his own. He did so hilariously during his trip to the Middle East when he said that top of the Irish foreign policy agenda was the settlement of the conflict there, when anybody who pays any attention to Irish foreign policy (and there cannot be many who do) knows that top of the agenda is keeping on-side with the Americans.
Meanwhile the PDs are claiming credit for bringing down income tax (the top rate) and regularly claim to be responsible for the Celtic Tiger, whereas the combination Michael McDowell calls “the slump coalition” when last in office (1994-1997) saw economic growth at twice the level it has been since Michael McDowell became a minister.
Meanwhile, we have the most unequal society in Europe and that reality features in debate not at all.