Taoiseach shows sense of purpose
THERE WAS a sense of something different, even historic, about the gathering of the 31st Dáil last week. There were many obvious changes: the massed ranks of the government parties with their massive majority, the presence of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams at the head of his greatly strengthened party, the numbers of independents had swelled and Fianna Fáil, battered into a corner of the chamber by the anger of the electorate, was a diminished and humbled force.
The more important difference had to do with more than mere ‘optics’ - to borrow a phrase that was popular among speakers on the day - there was a sense of renewal, vigour and focus about the normally staid proceedings. The independents who spoke broke with the tradition laid down by their predecessors and focused on national rather than purely local issues.
The one exception was South Kerry’s Tom Fleming who used his time to speak about a threat to jobs in his home patch of Castleisland. The former Fianna Fáil stalwart was first ordered back into line by the Ceann Comhairle and was then usurped by his fellow South Kerry independent Michael Healy Rae who was happy to inform the Dáil that he had already quietly addressed the matter in question with the incoming government. But even Healy Rae broke with his own family tradition by otherwise addressing his remarks to the state of the nation rather than matters such as the state of his local roads.
Independent deputies Ming and Mick Wallace showed that ponytails and lurid shirts are no barrier to talking sense and Joe Higgins, speaking for the left-leaning independents’ technical group, delivered a typically feisty speech that left no doubt he would be as much a thorn in the side of Enda Kenny as he was for Bertie Ahern in the past.
There was a sense of history too in hearing Gerry Adams speak as a TD in the Dáil, even if he was was outshone by Sinn Féin’s young gun, Pearse Doherty from Donegal who looks set to be a strong voice in Irish politics in the future. Despite the reservations that persist about Sinn Féin’s commitment to democratic politics, there was a sense on the day that the party finally sees the ballot box, rather than the Armalite, as the way forward and that is no small advance for politics on this island.
The first sitting of the new Dáil was a deeply humbling experience for the remnants of the once mighty Fianna Fáil who were huddled in a corner. But Micheál Martin seemed to warm to the role of opposition leader and while he was willing to abandon the tradition of voting against the majority party’s nominee for Taoiseach he quickly demonstrated that he won’t be lacking in fighting spirit.
It was refreshing too to see a clear sense of purpose in an incoming Taoiseach after the waffle and bluster we have endured in recent years. The economy is firmly at the top of the government’s agenda and Enda Kerry was unequivocal about his determination to set about the task of addressing the massive problems that beset the nation.
What he and his government will actually manage to achieve is another matter. Before the week was out he was being told in no uncertain terms by our French and German EU partners that there is no room for manoeuvre in renegotiating the crippling terms of our EU/IMF bailout package; in short Europe has done its bit for Ireland and anything more will come at price. At the weekend we learned that our banks need another €25 billion, meanwhile 1,000 people are leaving the country every week, businesses are closing down because they can’t get credit from the banks and their customers are afraid to spend the money they have stashed away.
The outlook is bleak and in reality there is not a whole lot this government, or any government, can do to make it right anytime soon. But we can have a greater unity of purpose from our politicians in facing up to the massive challenge and most importantly we can have open and honest communication between the government and the people of Ireland. The opening day in the Dáil gave a sense that this might happen; if it does that alone will be a huge achievement for Irish politics.