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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Merrion Street

Aaron McKenna The little government that could… If the cynics will let it

Aaron McKenna thinks the current government could run two or three years and deliver on some real fundamental changes to the way that we run the country.

SINCE THE CRASH and the election of 2011 words such as “reform”, “change” and “different” have been on the lips of politicians everywhere.

The Fine Gael-Labour government delivered some dubious and some meaningful change, but nothing to reach the soaring rhetoric of their pre-election promises.

In opposition for the first time in over 13 years, Fianna Fail discovered a zeal for reform it had markedly lacked in government; and after the 2011 election and again in 2016 we have a rake of independents and parties on the make who want to shake up the old order.

The 2011-2016 government was a victim of its own arrogance. With a supermajority to work with and a mission to pull the country back from the brink, it was first about getting the job done; and then about resting on its laurels for an economy in full recovery.

Bills were guillotined, burgeoning issues – most notably housing – were not addressed and some fairly straightforward political events – like a Seanad by-election – were bungled by a government seeming ever more out of touch.

It is easy to be quite sceptical about our current government. A hodge podge of the highly popular Fine Gael with a few independents, extended a lease on government buildings week by week from

Fianna Fail. It doesn’t seem like a major recipe for success in the traditional sense of government.

Then again, our “successful” traditional governments – those with stable majorities – have left us feeling quite cold as an electorate.

Something quite different

This government, and this Dail, have provided us an opportunity to try something quite different: A government that will have to bargain with the opposition to pass laws, that will have to listen to the feedback of committees that had previously been talking shops; and a Dail that can itself table legislation that can actually become law in the face of ministerial opposition.

We have already seen that happen this week with legislation that would curb mortgage interest rates. Agree or disagree with the aim of that legislation, it is a clear sign that the full legislature we elect now has a say in running the country; where previously we might as well have sent 158 TDs up to the Dail to elect a Taoiseach and then go home for five years.

The trouble is that these same opposition TDs, be they the permanent opposition to everything parties or the permanent hope to be in government types like Fianna Fail, will have to resist the temptation to pull the whole house of cards down if this experiment in Irish democracy is to last.

It’s easy to be cynical about Enda Kenny’s motives for wanting to hang on in government at any price.

It’s equally easy to be cynical and view Fianna Fail as a lion waiting in the long grass for an opportune moment, a spike in the polls or a particular crisis, to pounce and take the spoils of office for itself regardless of the cost to the country that instability brings.

True colours 

We will see the true colours of our opposition now that they actually have real power. There are parties that one suspects never have any intention of contributing meaningfully to the nation beyond protest. The responsibility of delivering on real change is too scary to them, because it’s always easier to look up and complain than to look around and solve.

Fianna Fail has been talking a good game of wanting to deliver reform, but one wonders if they might revert to type and seek to push themselves into power rather than push through some really interesting legislation while they have the chance.

The current government is a flying circus by its very nature. We will get frankly odd suggestions from new ministers, such as new junior Health Minister Finian McGrath’s suggestion that we roll back our highly progressive legislation on smoking.

We will also see controversial suggestions, such as that from Communications Minister Denis Naughten that child benefit be stripped from those who do not send their kids to school. It’s good to see controversial suggestions emanating from the safe space of government. Debate prompts thinking, which begins the process of innovation.

Government has become too much of a staid, PR-driven show house; where everything is supposed to appear perfect. Every communication is planned, every piece of legislation timed to perfection and on a good day it appears that government runs like a Swiss watch. That type of government has delivered unsatisfactory results.

New dynamic

We need government that takes random input that outputs wild suggestions and where the process of making laws and running the country is as dynamic as the country itself.

If the opposition makes a cynical lunge for power, or shows itself incapable of anything but protest even when presented with real power, then the experiment will end in a messy election that could see us right back where we started; with no clear route to forming a stable government. I think that the current government could run two or three years and deliver on some real fundamental changes to the way that we run the country.

There will be some wild days and late nights, but there is no reason why the reasonable people we have sent to the Dáil couldn’t for once combine their talents and their outlooks to deliver on a truly fascinating program for change in the country.

We can be cynical or we can make the most of it.

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Read: Ministers who avoid answering questions could find themselves on a naughty list>

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