22 September 2005 Edition
Bertie's brass neck and the Coalition of the Confused
The Dáil returns next week and Mícheál Mac Donncha surveys the political scene
As FIVE Mayo men continue to languish in prison this week for protecting their community from a multinational oil and gas giant, Bertie Ahern had the brass neck to launch a book on the great Irish socialist, republican and trade unionist James Connolly. Outside Liberty Hall where the book was launched supporters of the Rossport 5 and opponents of the FF/PD Government's deportations gathered to protest.
Here was the real government and real opposition lined up against one another, in contrast to the serial photo-calls of the Labour Party and Fine Gael. For Labour in particular the Rossport 5 are an embarrassment. As Pat Rabbitte cosies up to Fine Gael the last thing he needs is an issue that challenges all parties who have been in government since the '80s on their sell-out of our natural resources and an issue that has been especially badly handled by his partner Enda Kenny. The Mayo-based Fine Gael leader has failed to support his constituents and their community and is facing vote losses. He hopes his heightened national media profile will compensate.
And both Kenny and Rabbitte can rely on favourable media coverage. The past week provided a prime example. Fine Gael councillors tried to claim expenses from council funds to pay for a Fine Gael-organised get-together on local government. It was a blatant misuse of public funds for party political purposes. It got some media coverage but was largely downplayed and was not allowed to tarnish Kenny's image. If the culprits had been Fianna Fáil there would have been no holds barred.
Equally sloppy has been the media's treatment of the latest opinion polls. They have tried to paint up FF/PD and FG/Lab/Greens as within a couple of percentage points of each other, thus setting up a battle royal between the two 'alternative governments' come the General Election. But the polls are taken on a 26-County basis and do not reflect the reality that in many constituencies Fine Gael and Labour will be competing with each other for votes and seats. Rather than a heavyweight boxing match it will be more like a race where one runner (Fianna Fáil) carries an egg and spoon (the PDs) while the others (FG, Lab, Greens) hobble along with their legs tied together, too clumsy even for a three-legged race.
Little attention has been paid in the media to the policy contradictions within the would-be rainbow. These include:
Irish neutrality: Fine Gael wants to ditch it; Labour and the Greens want to keep it; Aer Lingus: Fine Gael wants to privatise; Labour opposes privatisation.
Health: Fine Gael supports the continuing privatisation of the health services while Labour wants state-funded universal health insurance.
And what of the Greens? Their position must be increasingly worrying for ordinary members and supporters of their party as it is taken for granted that they will just make up the numbers for Fine Gael and Labour in the Coalition of the Confused, regardless of policy. The leadership has done little to dispel this impression and now has the worst of both worlds — not in the loop with Pat and Enda but not seen to be independent either.
Will Rabbitte and Kenny have time to 'iron out' their differences? Some believe that Bertie Ahern will try to exploit the coalition contradictions by calling an early General Election next year. Others believe that Bertie and Brian Cowen plan two pre-election budgets and will run the Dáil to 2007. That seems the more likely scenario.
The only thing that might scupper FF plans to go the full distance would be PD jitters but it is hard to see what could make them bolt at the moment. The Colombia 3 case? Highly unlikely. One thing to watch out for is possible tension between Health Minister Mary Harney and the new head of the Health Service Executive, Brendan Drumm. For Harney and for Ahern, Health is the Big Issue that poses most danger to their prospects whenever the General Election is called.