For months we have been offered an ever-changing cocktail of alliances, non-coalitions and political orgies. The Coalition suffered a crushing defeat in February, yet Fine Gael remains in power, making Enda Kenny the only Fine Gael Taoiseach to serve two consecutive terms, and Labour, despite returning their few remaining seats on the back of a Coalition campaign, has returned to the opposition benches. Labour and Fianna Fáil now occupy the position of Schrödinger’s Opposition, supporting Fine Gael with the exact same fervour with which they oppose them. The exact same can be said for a handful of current Cabinet Ministers. John Halligan, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath broke the government line by voting for Mick Wallace’s fatal foetal abnormalities amendment to the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill.
We have a government that isn’t a government, backed by a coalition that isn’t a coalition, consisting of a party that isn’t a party, opposed by an opposition that isn’t an opposition, made up in part by an alliance that isn’t an alliance.
The day Fianna Fail makes its position clear will be a day to rejoice, but sadly it is a day that will never come. Many were expecting a return to the days of the Tallaght Strategy in the 1990s during which Fine Gael chose not to oppose Fianna Fail’s economic policies so long as the economy served the national interest. Of course, this was far more about Fine Gael’s electoral prospects than it ever was about the national interest. It allowed Fine Gael to avoid the awkward positions the opposition should have been taking in a period of unprecedented economic growth. This time we have been given something similar, but it is also an arrangement that is much less clear. Fianna Fail does not seem to know where it really stands on its support for the Fine Gael government, nor does it know what its stance is on the most pressing issues of the day, whether that is health, housing, education or abortion rights.
At the end of the day this is about positioning themselves for the next election, whenever that may be, and it seems to be working. Five of the eight opinion polls conducted since the February general election have put Fianna Fail either ahead of or on par with Fine Gael. They are still a long way off from their heyday, but their recent climb in the polls has been quite significant given the extent of their defeat only five years ago. This recovery of political fortunes may be surprising, but the deliberate indecisiveness that has led to it isn’t.
This same indecisiveness exists within the government itself. Ever since the election it has seemed as though Enda Kenny is about to resign and make way for a new Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach to emerge, whether that is Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney or Frances Fitzgerald. Kenny actually tendered his resignation to President Michael D Higgins in March after losing a Dail vote to elect the new Taoiseach, but four months later no such thing has occurred. Varadkar can’t seem to make up his mind about whether or not he wishes to advance his political career, once stating that he would leave politics while still young and that he had no desire to make a career out of it, all the while positioning himself for higher office, much like Boris Johnson in the EU Referendum campaign.
Others in the government have found themselves doing u-turns on the very issues that got them elected. Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone was elected as an independent on a liberal platform riding on the back of her feminist credentials and support for same-sex marriage. You would expect that someone who fought an uphill battle for LGBT rights for years wouldn’t present the excuse that she did for her current and future inaction on abortion rights and the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. ‘I’m not yet convinced that enough people are with us…I’m not convinced that our people are ready to pass that referendum’. No fight has been won or mind changed through inaction. If we had put forward this excuse for LGBT rights then we wouldn’t have voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality last year, if it had been said for civil rights in the US in the 1960s then there would never have been legal rights and anti-discrimination laws to protect black people, and there would be no black President of the United States at this moment in time. It seems this particular feminist who has advocated for ’30 years to change the constitution with regard to abortion’ isn’t willing to put in the effort now that she is finally in a position of power, simply because there are some who are not yet convinced, despite the opinion polls saying otherwise.
Sinn Fein has also been accused of failing to make up its mind on water charges. Do they really want to scrap water charges and Irish Water? Or are they shying away from such an idea now that they are increasingly within reach of power? It seems the former is the reality, and accusations that Sinn Fein’s proposals to set up a commission to look at the future of water and waste treatment provision represents a u-turn on their anti-water charges election platform are rooted more in the possibility of other left-wing groups gaining a political advantage than they are in any kind of change of policies, at least on Sinn Fein’s behalf (the same can’t be said for Fianna Fail). This then represents another flip-flop in Irish politics, that of alliances. As far as most people were concerned almost the entire Left of Irish politics was united under the Right2Change banner, and for all the hope that that inspired, it seems to have faded away only to open up the floodgates to infighting yet again. Is the Left really united in any kind of significant way, is Sinn Fein willing to stick to its left-wing rhetoric, and when will all of this be confirmed.
We’re unlikely to get any answers or clarifications. This is politics after all. The very nature of parliamentary politics, particularly in the current context, means that ambiguity and vagueness is the only real way to win an election. The EU Referendum, once again, is the perfect example of this, as is the rise of Fianna Fail after their near-fatal defeat in 2011.