Opposition unable to land any real blows

  • 12 November 2004
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ANALYSIS: Eoin Ó Mhurchú says the Government is vulnerable, but wild flailing by the Opposition has not been teamed with new ideas

It's too early to pass judgement on the degree to which the reshuffled government has injected a new note of dynamism and urgency into the political system, but so far one thing is certain: the Opposition are failing to capitalise on whatever mood of discontent is to be found in the general public.

Concerns about health, and the crisis in A&E, still dominate public discourse about politics, but the Opposition seems able to do little more than repeat the criticisms being made by the general public: there are glimmers of ideas about how to deal with the crisis, but these differ little from what the Government is already promising.

It is clearly not enough just to decry the existing inadequacies. People want to know how the Opposition intends to tackle them. Claiming to be more efficient than the Government may be good for party morale, but I doubt if it wins over the uncommitted voter whose support will be vital if the Rainbow is to replace the Coalition in the corridors of power.

It's not that calls for more investment aren't a key part of what is needed. The real issue is where is this investment to come from. Are we going to spend the same amount, but spend it better? Or are we going to increase spending and, if so, by how much?

If the answer is better spending of existing resources (getting value for money is how Fine Gael express it) a sceptical public will need some convincing that Fine Gael can do it better than Fianna Fáil. They need more than "a Government that will keep its contract with the people", to quote Enda Kenny. And they will need convincing that the components of that Government share the same definition of "intuitive, insightful and compassionate" that Kenny advocates.

More realistically, if extra spending is required — and this certainly seems to be the logic of Labour's stance, if Joan Burton actually speaks for the party — then, how will this be raised?

We know how Sinn Féin will do it. They call for higher taxes, targeted as far as possible on the rich and higher earners, especially those who earn personally more than €127,000 a year. But how will Labour do it, and are Labour's plans compatible with Fine Gael's?

Pat Rabbitte has argued that the voters need to know that there is a clear alternative to the existing Government, but it is precisely in this area that clarity is most needed. Fine Gael, for example, support the existing low level of corporation tax, but does Labour? Certainly Labour voters don't; and is it really conceivable that Labour could go into coalition with Fine Gael to uphold such a tax system, with Sinn Féin breathing revolutionary fervour down their necks.

I think it is this uncertainty which is causing the Opposition to flail rather wildly in their criticisms of the Government.

So, when Mary Hanafin announced that commitments to reduce pupil-teacher ratios might not be met, Enda Kenny marched forth with fire and brimstone in his voice, claiming that the job could be done if the Government had the will, but giving no new ideas about how it might be done.

Surely, it would be absurd to believe that the Government doesn't want to use resources it has, such as trained teachers due to come "on stream", merely out of malevolence?

On the other hand, both Labour and Sinn Féin jumped on information that certain tax schemes were costing €8 billion annually to accuse the Government, once again, of looking after the rich at the expense of the poor.

But the Taoiseach ably pointed out that many of the schemes involved were ones directed at the ordinary homeowner, reliefs such as mortgage interest, medical insurance, child benefit and pensions. And in a rare comic moment, he suggested that Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin must have better protection than Bertie Ahern if he were willing to announce the ending of these reliefs!

There are, of course, valid arguments that can be made against such reliefs, but just because the Irish Independent headlined the story as tax breaks for the rich is no reason for serious politicians to blindly follow their lead.

Meanwhile, the Government remains as vulnerable as ever to attack on all these issues that excite such public concern, but the Opposition will only strike a mortal blow when it starts putting together coherent alternative policies, when, in fact, it does what Enda Kenny promised in his address to the party's presidential dinner, and publishes ideas that "address the fault lines that have opened up in Irish life.

Eoin ÓMurchú is the Eagraí Polaitíochta of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. He is writing here in a personal capacity.