6 June 2002 Edition
The challenge of a new opposition
Selected last Saturday as leader of Sinn Féin's newly elected Parliamentary Group in Leinster House, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin is undeterred by Fianna Fáil's and the PD's return to power, and points to promising changes in the Dáil Opposition.
A real alternative of the left is both necessary and possible.
- Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin
"It has been truly said of the general election that the people did not change the government - they changed the Opposition," Ó Caoláin told An Phoblacht this week, as the Sinn Féin team prepared to enter Leinster House.
Business as usual is the mindset of the incoming government, he says, despite the unexpected success of the PDs. "The Progressive Democrats will have greater representation but the general shape and policy direction of the government of the last five years will remain the same. In stark contrast, the Opposition in the Dáil has been transformed."
Indeed it has. The deputies of the Labour Party, the Green Party and Sinn Féin now outnumber those of Fine Gael, by 32 to 31. The incoming government is likely to be conservative and right-wing in character, especially given the increased representation of the PDs. "A real alternative of the left is therefore both necessary and possible," Ó Caoláin believes. "Fine Gael cannot provide such an alternative. Currently in disarray, Fine Gael offers only a choice between shades of conservatism.
The Cavan/Monaghan TD will be joined by colleagues Seán Crowe (Dublin South West), Martin Ferris (Kerry North), Arthur Morgan (Louth) and Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central). "We have been given a new mandate and Sinn Féin has been given a new responsibility as a significant party in the Dáil.
"When we met for the first time last week as a team of Sinn Féin TDs, we were joined by three of our four MPs from the Six Counties - Gerry Adams, Pat Doherty and Michelle Gildernew. It was a reminder that across Ireland as a whole around 300,000 people vote Sinn Féin and that we are the only all-Ireland party."
With signs that Northern representation in the Dáil may be introduced in the near future, Ó Caoláin says that Sinn Féin's focus will very much remain on the strengthening of cross-border links and preparation for the unity of the country.
"Four years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed in referenda. The Agreement involved difficult compromises for all concerned but it provided the basis for political progress. It has yet to be fully implemented and TDs in the new Dáil should focus on this need. The Agreement provides for the reunification of Ireland given 'the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island'. Common efforts are necessary to achieve this consent and to prepare for the future unity of our people and our country. That task should begin now and a Green Paper on Irish Unity would be just one element of such a programme."
Decline in public services and a widening of the division between rich and poor may continue in the term of the new Dáil, Ó Caoláin says, and opposition parties must start working together. "We in Sinn Féin will be advancing our equality agenda in the new Dáil. We will be campaigning inside and outside the Dáil chamber for a renewed health service and an end to the two-tier system, for decent housing, accessible childcare, rural regeneration and the implementation of the people's decision on the Treaty of Nice. We are willing to work with others of all parties to advance this agenda. At the same time we will vigorously oppose any government programme of cuts to public services, privatisation or the clawing back of the advances made by working people in the past decade."
Without a change in current Dáil Standing Orders, however, this task may be rendered all the more difficult. "Dáil Standing Orders must be changed if the mandate of the electorate is to be respected in the new Dáil. Current Standing Orders severely restrict the smaller parties in their ability to fully represent their voters in terms of speaking time, private members' business, introducing legislation and questioning ministers. This is totally undemocratic and must not be allowed to continue."
Fianna Fáil, as the largest party, he says, should take the lead in having Standing Orders amended. In the event that Standing Orders are not changed it will be necessary for Sinn Féin, the Greens and Independents to cooperate in the formation of a technical group - a way of working around the Dáil's outdated rules.
But will other parties and Sinn Féin manage to organise on issues of common concern?
"A new challenge in Irish politics is for the Labour Party, the Greens, Sinn Féin and principled and progressive independents to provide the left alternative to an incoming FF/PD Coalition," says Ó Caoláin. "We share common ground on a range of issues and these can be developed. Such an alignment would be better placed to appeal to the many ordinary decent people who support Fianna Fáil than any Fine Gael-led opposition. In the heat of inter-party rivalry, this is often forgotten."
Tensions on the Opposition benches are set to grow as a rerun of the Nice Treaty referendum looms on the horizon. Scheduled for the autumn, it seems unlikely now that the Labour Party or Fine Gael will do a u-turn on their support for the Treaty, leaving Sinn Féin, the Greens and a handful of Independents standing against the government.
"The most immediate task of those who value Irish democracy will be to ensure that the decision of the electorate in rejecting the Nice Treaty is respected and to oppose any replay of the referendum. Last year the electorate rejected this undemocratic Treaty and rejected also the advice of the Fianna Fáil/PD/Fine Gael/Labour alliance for a yes vote. All these parties should not be part of any effort to dragoon the people into "getting it right" the second time around."
"A real alternative of the left is both necessary and possible." Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin
More of the same from FF/PDs
Are you ready for another five years of the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats in government? Last time around the two parties came together to govern during a period of unparralleled prosperity and wealth creation. This time, the view is not so sunny and there is genuine concern about the ability of this government to manage an economy slowly trudging out of one recession and facing into an unpredictable future.
Don't worry though; Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney have a plan. Their Programme for Government is a superb gloss job, promising a lot over the next five years, but giving little firm commitments and only a hint at a timescale.
The only real conclusion you can draw from the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat Plan is that a lot of policy will be made on the hoof over the next five years. It also begs the question: whatever were they up to over the last five years that so much still needs to be done?
Robbie MacGabhann gets the microscope out to highlight the inconsistencies, flaws and undeliverable promises being offered up by this new coalition government.
In the run up to the election the main difference between the PD and FF tax promises was the PD commitment to cut further the higher rate of income tax. This promise has disappeared but there is a pledge to increase Capital Gains Tax exemption limits, which should make a lot of the high-income earners cashing in on share options very happy.
Corporation taxes are set to fall further and there is an assurance not to increase other payroll taxes, such as employers' social insurance, so the business community will rest easy for the next few years.
So with business and high earners boxed off, what about the low paid, who it would cost less than ¤450 million to take out of the tax net? Well, the only promise Ahern and Harney are making is to take minimum wage workers out of the tax net over the next five years. That this is not an immediate priority of government shows how little real concern there is for the ordinary householder and their family.
It is also amazing that Harney, who has done good work as a minister seeking to follow up on the Ansbacher account tax fraud, has ignored the need to work for serious tax reform in the 26 Counties.
"We will vigorously pursue actions to ensure that everyone is tax compliant" is the last line of the Programme's tax proposals and this sums up the rest of the document, which is full of hazy aspirations and zero detail or timescale.
Another good example of the problems ahead for the coalition can be found in the sections on Europe. The programme claims that "commitment to the EU and its development in no way implies support for a European superstate or for an ambitious federalist project". This is clearly at odds with the ambitions of many in the EU particularly EU Commission President Romano Prodi.
Then the two parties state: "We believe that fiscal policy should remain the preserve of national administrations", yet they want to involve us in an EU unification process that will ultimately deny government that very power.
There is a promise to rerun the Nice Treaty "later this year" and also to address "the concerns of the people as expressed during previous referendums". What this really means is unclear and it is highly likely that Ahern and Harney don't know either.
The biggest claim to a success by the PDs and FF over the last five years was the 400,000 new jobs created. The last year of recession, with thousands of jobs lost in international and Irish companies, showed just how transitory this success can be. Developing indigenous businesses with strong research and development programmes on a regional basis is an immediate priority of any new government and this one promises much, but the little inconsistencies highlight a much larger credibility problem.
Take one example, which is the promise to "ensure the putting in place of open-access broadband on a national basis". Great, but who is going to do this?
Will the government direct Eircom, NTL, Chorus and ESAT amongst others to do this? Who will pay? Who will own the infrastructure? How much will it cost? What does "open access" and "national" mean?
At present, there are only plans to bring broadband telecommunications service to large towns. Once again, the programme gets lost in the shadows.
The caring society
Moving into the other sections on housing, health and childcare, there are acres of good intentions mixed in with the inconsistencies. For example, the coalition promises to reduce poverty, yet over the last five years Combat Poverty and ESRI figures show that relative income poverty remained unchanged. Surely that would prompt a major rethink in policies to tackle poverty? Well don't go looking for it here.
On health, there is yet again the promise of a world class public health service that is "accessible to all", yet they want to bring more private sector companies into the health insurance market. Bringing BUPA into the health market heralded the end of the community charge system where everyone paid the same premium regardless of age. More private health care will mean higher charges for the old and people with families.
Perhaps the most telling part of the "Agreed Programme for Government" is that you cannot find the last one formulated in 1997 on either of the parties' websites, or on the government web site. It has vanished in a haze, just like this one will too.
Fasten your safety belt. It will be a rough five years, assuming they don't crash in the meantime.
Consultants running the state
Bluff was the name of the game in Election 2002. Jaded we were, for weeks, as Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour reduced the entire campaign to arguments over who had the best economic policy. Each party claimed authority on the issue, but the facts, this week, spoke for themselves.
Revelations this week that the outgoing government spent €313 million on consultants put paid to the idea that Charlie McCreevy is an economic expert. Half of that spent on civil service wages, the fees, to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Touch, Accenture and KPMG among others, showed that government ministers - and genuine party policy - play only a peripheral role in running the economy and infrastructure of the Southern state.
Shock casualty in the elections, and former Public Enterprise minister, Mary O'Rourke, spent €131 million of the total, outgoing Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue, spending a further €66 million.
€4 million was spent by various departments on public relations, and maybe that's why so many people end up thinking that the TD with the Cheshire smile from Kildare has singlehandedly created the Celtic Tiger.