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6 February 1997 Edition

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Pint-size politicians

BY MICHEAL MacDONNCHA

When you see politicians scrambling to make political capital on the price of the pint you know that the early symptoms of election fever have struck. During the week government ministers were falling over one another to get stuck into Dublin publicans who raised drink prices.

In the unseemly rush for the spotlight Taoiseach John Bruton (Fine Gael) vied with Minister of State for Trade Pat Rabbite (Democratic Left). Bruton was described by his spin doctors as ``a pint drinker himself'' while Rabbite fumed at the publicans (a change from fuming at republicans) and threatened drastic action. We can expect more of the same as winter turns to spring, for every indicator now points to a June general election.

Buoyed by a ``giveaway budget'' which was given the easiest ride in the media of any budget in living memory, the Coalition looks set to contract its legislative programme into the weeks between now and mid-May and go to the country in June. This option of making hay while the sun shines seems more attractive than the longer wait until the autumn.

But a rainbow never appears in a cloudless sky and the Rainbow Coalition has several clouds hanging over it. The Ben Dunne/ Michael Lowry scandal is not going to go away, presenting problems for Fine Gael in particular. The expected establishment of a tribunal on the matter is a politically risky business, even if no more politicians' names are exposed. If it goes ahead on 10 February the nurses' strike will take the shine off the Partnership 2000 agreement endorsed by the ICTU last week, and damage Labour. Most intriguing off all is the cloud over Prionsias de Rossa and Democratic Left.

De Rossa's high profile libel case against the Sunday Independent will be back in court on 25 February. The Democratic Left leader's parliamentary colleagues are known to have advised against his taking the case, as it rakes up the murky past of Democratic Left and its previous incarnations of the Workers Party and `Official Sinn Féin'. After the first trial collapsed last November because of another article in the Sunday Independent which the judge ruled had prejudiced the jury, both De Rossa and the Sunday Independent vowed to fight on in a new trial. While an out-of-court settlement is always possible, something of a Mexican stand-off has now developed. Once again it is a high risk strategy for De Rossa and could indeed prove very damaging if the Sunday Independent produces vital documentary and witness evidence.

This coalition has often been described as being stuck together like glue but any one of the above difficulties could begin to seperate them. They desperately want to avoid that because Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left intend to continue this government after the general election if they retain sufficient seats. The voters are being conditioned to see the only government possible as either the present combination of parties or a Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats coalition. This was reflected in an Irish Times/MRBI poll last week which asked voters their coalition preferences but only cited the aforementioned combinations. What the parliamentary arithmetic dictates after the election will be a different matter.

That poll also showed that the number one issue for voters, far ahead of all others with 63% identifying it, is unemployment. The failure of the Coalition to deliver on real jobs at a time of unprecedented economic growth could prove to be the biggest threat of all to their plans to remain in power until the 21st century.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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