In a blistering report on the first 100 days of Micheál Martin’s government, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin details the incompetence, the scandal, the chaos, and the unforgivable role of the Greens.
It seems like an age since the February election saw a resounding rejection of the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael cycle which had dominated Irish politics for the guts of a hundred years.
The outside hope of a new Left minority government soon faded as government talks were postponed, allowing Fine Gael to hold onto the reins for a while longer, in the “national interest”. The COVID-19 crisis will not have dampened the yearning for change in the long run but when the pandemic hit, talk of change was put on the long finger as people attempted to come to terms with the virus.
Eventually, and after a lengthy period of theatrics, we emerged with a historic coalition. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael joined together for the first time to keep the Left out, with the help of a Green Party mudguard.
The Programme for Government set out by the three parties was hailed by some in the media establishment as a progressive, left wing document on the one hand, and derided by the Left as a dressing up of the same neoliberal policies on the other. But as we reach the 100 day mark, there is little doubt over what direction this government is going.
Pigs At The Trough
The scramble for ministerial positions set the tone for this government. With three parties all to be represented at cabinet, some TDs who might consider themselves to be heavy hitters were bound to lose out. The reaction from those who did was almost comical.
Unsurprisingly, it was the Fianna Fáilers that took things the hardest. Mayo’s Dara Calleary took to the airwaves early on to express his anger at not gaining a ministerial position. Michael Moynihan of Cork North West was out of the traps shortly after to tell the public how he had given Micheál Martin “both barrels” in return for the grave insult of not being selected for a junior ministry.
Willie O’Dea blasted the Taoiseach after he was also snubbed. To be fair to O’Dea though, his anger wasn’t personal. It was down to being “bitterly disappointed for the people of Limerick”, all of whom he felt would be grossly insulted by the decision not to give him a seat at the table.
With so many pigs at the trough, more room had to be made, and the government duly obliged. People wondered what the hell a super junior minister was when the government created a third one, but with an extra €16,888 on top of their existing €124,439 salary, the reason for the position became clear. News broke soon after that the government would also hire up to 17 special advisers – each one on a salary of between €87,325 and €101,114.
The furore was so great that Micheál Martin had to announce that he and the other ministers would take a voluntary 10% pay cut. This had been planned all along, he said, but he only saw fit to inform the public after the outcry over the super juniors and special advisers.
It soon emerged that this was merely the reinstatement of a pay cut that lapsed with the end of the last term of government. Varadkar, Martin, Ryan and co. would end up drawing down more money than their predecessors.
One Rule For Us…
The fake pay cut came in the same week that the government began flying kites about the Pandemic Unemployment Payment for those who lost their job because of the pandemic – unlike their own bloated salaries, these payments were ‘unsustainable’ and would have to be reduced in the autumn.
This hypocrisy and double standard has become a hallmark of this government’s first few months. Having compared the risk of COVID-19 those of bouncing on a trampoline, Stephen Donnelly was able to get a COVID-19 test within hours of showing symptoms and the entire Dáil was shut down until this happened. By contrast, there have now been at least 150 cases found in schools, but teachers are not being counted as close contacts when cases arrive.
The singular event that has most clearly epitomised the hypocrisy of this government and our ruling class generally is the Golfgate scandal in mid-August. The Oireachtas Golf Society Dinner is exactly what it sounds like – a ruling class event where the political, judicial, and banking elites come together to rub shoulders. This year it coincided with COVID-19. Did it matter to them that they were openly flaunting the restrictions they wanted to impose upon the rest of us? Not until they were caught.
Dara Calleary was the first casualty. After his furore at not being made Minister, his luck had turned around. Barry Cowen was forced to resign as Minister for Agriculture when news of his past exploits of drink-driving without a license emerged. Calleary was handed the job only to become another of the shortest serving ministers in the history of the state when it became clear that his mea culpa for Golfgate didn’t satisfy the public. He remains a TD, of course.
The scandal eventually brought down EU Commissioner Phil Hogan but Supreme Court judge and former Fine Gael member Séamus Woulfe remains in his post. Woulfe, in response to calls for accountability, described the media as “like a Ku Klux Klan”, so it’s safe to say he hasn’t learned a single lesson.
COVID-19: Chaos & Class War
Golfgate seriously undermined confidence in the government’s public health restrictions. At a time when fatigue had already set in, the ruling class made it clear that the rules they set for everyone else did not apply to them.
However, the approach to COVID-19 was a shambles even before Golfgate happened. A combination of incompetence and loyalty to business interests has meant we have gone from near elimination levels back in June to a second wave of the virus that could be more damaging than the first.
Failure to ensure the safety of meat plant workers created the conditions for the seeding of the second wave. Since then, the government has done nothing to stop the rise in cases, which rose at a slow, steady pace until the opening of the schools in September, at which point cases began to rise more rapidly.
Whereas the last Fine Gael government managed to cultivate the idea of national unity during the first wave of the virus, the class antagonisms in society are more clearly being laid bare with the second.
Evictions have been reintroduced. The Pandemic Unemployment Payment has been cut. At one point, Leo Varadkar’s Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection were performing seemingly illegal inspections at airports to ascertain whether people claiming the PUP were going on holiday. The criteria for the PUP were changed to say recipients had to be actively seeking work, despite thousands of workers’ industries being on hold due to the pandemic – all to suit Varadkar’s agenda.
Meanwhile, major corporations continue to have their wage bills paid by the state, despite many of them inflicting vicious wage cuts on their workers and without any strings attached in terms of paying back the money into the future. Aer Lingus workers in particular have been reduced to poverty incomes, with suggestions by some that it will make staff so miserable that they will leave their jobs without the airline having to pay them redundancies.
Some of the commentariat have taken to comparing Fine Gael’s Varadkar and Harris’ handling of COVID-19 with the chaos under the new government – as if both were not still in government. The reality is that the new government’s strategy for COVID-19 represents a continuation rather than a break from Varadkar’s strategy. Varadkar tore up his own plans in order to lift restrictions and get profits moving again before he went into government with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. Varadkar’s government failed to build up a permanent mass testing and trace infrastructure which could have helped prevent COVID-19 from spreading once again.
Varadkar himself seems to be happy to pretend he is Taoiseach when there is good news, to present as the opposition when there are problems, and to generally undermine Fianna Fáil whenever the opportunity arises. At the beginning of September he stated that wet pubs should be given the opportunity to reopen, despite the government decision to keep them closed. Back in July he leaked news of the “green” travel list, even though the government was still advising against non-essential travel. His strategy seems to be working – Fianna Fáil have plummeted in the polls, while Fine Gael have risen.
And what about the Green Party? Eamon Ryan’s speeches in the previous Dáil were elevated to the level of performance art at times, but sadly now that he is in government he is no longer regaling us with stories of painting the back of the house and growing salad on window sills. Instead, he has been sleeping through debates on whether workers should get a living wage, waking up only to vote against them.
The first hundred days in government have seen the Green Party become a parody of itself. A living wage, the extension of maternity leave, mandatory sick pay, measures to alleviate child poverty, a ban on evictions – these are just some of the bills the Greens have voted against so far. Perhaps there have been some environmental protections as a trade-off for throwing workers and struggling people under the bus?
Unsurprisingly, no. The government rammed through a Forestry Bill that was widely condemned by environmental organisations such as the Irish Wildlife Trust, as it will facilitate industrial agro-forestry developments that will be harmful to biodiversity. Bus Éireann have cut their express routes between Dublin and Galway, Limerick and Cork, citing lack of funding – something that is apparently out of Transport Minister Éamon Ryan’s hands.
Unbelievably, it also emerged last week that the government is considering a pilot scheme that would allow for the shooting of seals with high powered rifles from boats – apparently to overcome the problem of depleted fish stock.
The excuses and justifications given by Green TDs for their exploits complete the sorry picture. Catherine Martin explained early on that she would have to vote against a ban on hare coursing, but that she would do so “with the heaviest of hearts”. Joe O’Brien, who campaigned within the Green Party for a boycott of Israeli goods from the Occupied Territories, stated that he would have to vote against the Occupied Territories Bill, as to do otherwise would mean stepping down from his position as a Minister. He explained that he would do this for the good of the Palestinians:
“Ultimately I think having a Junior Minister advocating for the Palestinian cause will be more useful to Palestinians over the next four years than someone who is not a Minister who voted for a Bill that unfortunately I suspect will not get passed anyway, at least not in this Dáil.”
This, more than anything, sums up the impotence of the Green Party’s politics. They claim they cannot achieve anything without being in government. Once in government, however, they cannot implement even the most lukewarm of reforms, as to do so would mean breaking with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and losing their spot in government.
Will this last?
Rocked by scandals, heading further into a recession and a deepening COVID-19 crisis, it is difficult to say how long this coalition can last. There is massive anger at the incompetence and incoherence of the government’s approach to COVID-19. A continuation of their “living with COVID-19” strategy will likely prolong the crisis, increase the pressure on the health service, and further fuel the frustrations people are feeling.
Indeed social media was rife with fury last night as Leo Varadkar turned both barrels on Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan and the National Public Health Emergency Team who had recommended that Ireland move to Level 5 restrictions. They had described the move as the “only opportunity” to get Covid “back under control”, after warning of a “significant and deteriorating” epidemiological situation.
Immediately after the recommendation, sources made clear that the Government viewed Level 5 as a step too far and were concerned in particular about the impact on business – no surprise there. Martin said the impact would be too great on ‘businesses that are beginning to recover’.
Moments later, Varadkar let loose on the medical advisors on Claire Byrne Live, telling them that the government’s approach can’t be “public health only”. Exactly 100 days on for this government, this clear and hostile departure from medical advice could leave a lasting impact on their tenure, if the backlash is anything to go by.
We are already seeing signs of resistance from teachers, with ASTI balloting for industrial action. Yet fear of Sinn Féin and the Left could lead the government parties to cling closer together to hold onto power as long as possible. They will know that an early election could be dangerous, even for Fine Gael who are riding high in the polls.
One thing is certain: this coalition, which was an attempt by the ruling class to recalibrate and reorganise, is not achieving its aims. Fianna Fáil appear to be on their way into the dustbin of history and will probably be accompanied by the Green Party. The opportunity is there to build a fighting Left that can mount a serious challenge to the establishment and potentially bring about transformative, positive change.