Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Government Hemmed in by Opinion Polls

How have things gone so wrong for the Fianna Fail-led coalition? What has happened after 10 years of solid, confident government? Why is the old and universal argument, that "it's the economy, stupid," not giving electoral sustenance? Why has a gap developed between wealth and performance? Why have we seen a series of panic-stricken ministers making eleventh-hour public appointments, issuing promises of expenditure, and challenging the credibility of the opposition parties, when none of this is fitting or proper or relevant in the run-up to an election?

Where has the dignity and certainty gone? Five years ago, the message was simple and clear. A lot had been achieved and more of the same seemed a reasonable political offer. It was sufficient and it worked.

No such certainty is present today. Public perception is that Bertie Ahern is under attack, as are his ministers. The Government is surrounded by problems and the public seem happy to contemplate replacing experienced politicians with inexperienced ones. This is based on the vague and uncertain grounds that some kind of connection has been lost between almost gross levels of national wealth on the one hand, and the inability to relate them to the needs of ordinary people who want effective health care, more and better schools for the education of their children, a credible competence on crime, and such shamefully simple needs as pure water in a country where its absence verges on the ridiculous.

Something is missing, and it seems to hinge upon the linkage between wealth and its expenditure. In other words, we have the money but seem unable to put it to effective use. And the key figure in this is Brian Cowen. He is a bright, determined and resourceful political operator. He has used prudence in the control and management of public finances. Like Gordon Brown, in England, he is a good controller of the Exchequer. But like Brown he lacks charm, excitement or appeal. All of this is fine in a Number Two. Yet it creates doubt where none should exist, and this seems to derive from Cowen's failure to relate wealth to action. In this he is like the classic bank manager. He sits on the nation's wealth, protecting it and requiring from those who would like to spend it - his fellow ministers - convincing arguments about how this should be done. Either these arguments are not being made all that well, or he has browbeaten other Cabinet ministers into a passive state from which they now emerge to face a lot of legitimate criticism. Are they in a state of panic as a result?

This time around it is as if the main claim made in 2002 - a lot done, more to do - is no longer valid. Therefore the undertaking to go on in the same way does not stand up. We have not planned or managed wealth in terms of a rising population. We have not properly serviced the new townships that people are moving to - hoping that life will be better - but in fact finding things like good education to be elusive. A growing number of areas in the country lack basics. The astonishing revelations in recent weeks about the purity of water around the country and about its supply, have been accompanied by clear evidence of those in power simply ignoring public need. This applies in services such as schools, and the quality and capacity of existing schools to accommodate the children whose parents are paying high taxes for their education and high prices for houses in areas that are barren of good, well-equipped schools. This same gap applies also to health and security in many areas.

A major problem, quite deliberately created, lies in the separation of politics and of government from the direct answerability that is a fundamental part of democracy. We have distanced the Dail and the democratic processes from the running of the Health Services, from investment of public capital, from the organisation of industrial relations, pay, productivity and therefore disputes such as that involving the nurses.

We have created ponderous mechanisms, like 'Social Partnership', or the Health Service Executive to take the place of hands-on administration, again by those elected to control or supervise it. So we watch Mary Harney trying to be hands-on in one direction and hands-off in the other, as she ploughs her way through a sea of troubles. When everything is fine, and the State semi-independent agencies work, we move forward, though not without loss of competitiveness. When they do not work, unscrambling the chaos is difficult. These generalised perceptions are by no means the whole truth, and in many cases are unfair, but they have changed political support as expressed through recent opinion polls. They are what make people change allegiance, vote differently, and it looks as though this is happening. Bertie may be living in a world of high, Anglo-Irish politics, deservedly admired by the British for helping to solve the Irish Question. But the Irish Question being asked at home, the electoral one, is different.