Back to the 1980s – Unemployment, Economic Doom & Gloom, and Abortion. What next? Northern Ireland!
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Government faces formidable challenges in 2013, and the Meath East by-election brings them all to a head
Sometimes it feels like we all woke up one morning and there we were – right back to the 1980s. Lost in a decade of rampant unemployment and emigration; where the only news on the economic front is the bad news of still burgeoning deficits and an unsustainably mounting sovereign debt burden; flaky banks and building societies teetering on the verge of collapse and looking to be bailed out by the state; and of course, the lingering socially corrosive impact of a bitter debate surrounding the ‘right to life’ amendment to the Constitution. Northern Ireland was a fine old mess in those days too – a completely failed political entity; which is much what it increasingly is beginning to resemble as the promise of the Peace Process is overtaken by unresolved political tensions. The stuff of nightmares, those old intractable issues. And they’re all back. Only this time it’s even worse. So pity the government.
According to Pat Rabbitte, the media need to change their ways and treat politics and politicians more kindly. Otherwise, he said, we’re opening the doors to dictatorship; or words to that effect. Thing is, the media, particularly the mainstream print and broadcast sectors, have arguably been far too kind to this government. News issues are faithfully reported in whatever way they are framed by members of the government directly or their spinmeisters. Comment and analysis is carefully balanced. Coherent critique of government policy, in each and every area you can think of, is insufficient. When it does appear, too often it takes the form of a focus on personality or interpersonal conflicts; not rigorous scrutiny of whatever policy is proposed and the alternatives that are available to the choices made by Ministers. In short, the media has been far too inclined to accept the government’s ‘the Troika made us do it’ or ‘the mess we inherited leaves us no choice’ or ‘we’ve lost our sovereignty’ old guff and repeat it each time, as if it represented some new insight into our troubles as opposed to a pathetic evasion of responsibility for its own bad decisions.
Yet pity the government nonetheless. The next six months could be the making or breaking of this Coalition’s credibility. It has no choice but to hold a by-election in Meath East following the tragic death of Fine Gael TD and Junior Minister, Shane McEntee, within the next six months, which throws a number of national, as opposed to local, issues into high relief.
Consider the prospect from a Fine Gael perspective: the abortion issue will likely still be in play from both pro-choice and anti-choice perspectives, regardless of whether or not the government has published its legislation. The public will have received their so-called housing valuations from Revenue for Michael Noonan’s property tax, which will have done little to lighten their mood. The effects of the budget cuts on provision of services will have become apparent to all and sundry. Whatever deal the government may have secured from Europe on the debt burden by that point – most likely confined to some sort of stretched out period for repayment of the Anglo promissory notes at a low interest rate – will be publicly contentious to say the least of it. But failure to achieve something, anything, on the debt front by the March deadline for the next promissory note payment is politically inconceivable. As for Labour, the continuing strains within that party do not look set to stabilise any time soon. Labour has little or no prospect of winning the by-election; the best it can hope for is to make a credible show that augurs well for Dominic Hannigan’s chances of retaining his parliamentary presence in the next general election.
The government parties may seek to shrug off attaching any significance to the Meath by-election. It makes no difference to parliamentary arithmetic if the Fine Gael seat is lost to Fianna Fail, as appears the most likely prospect on current opinion poll numbers. But it comes close to that critical starting point of countdown to the next local elections and the point in the electoral cycle where first term TDs begin to assess their chances of being one term wonders or settling in to their political careers for the long haul.
Further, with the mix of issues in play, the electors of Meath East are being asked to cast a verdict on the government’s overall strategy and performance. And if they feel, like so many of the rest of us do, that they’ve been cast back to the nightmare years of the 1980s, that verdict may not be a kind one.