Bruce Arnold

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

Opposition Need for Caution

During the course of Enda Kenny's ard fheis speech I was at first troubled by what I thought of as the over-use of the word "contract".

The emphasis had a resonance about it but its meaning remained unexplained. It was not good enough to tell us that the Fine Gael leader wants a contract with the Irish people for a better Ireland. I think we all want a contract along those lines. The problem is, with whom do we have it, and how do we discover the necessary trust and dependency in the chosen bearer of contractual responsibility for our lives?

For that, in the end, is what a general election is about. In order for this difficulty to be sorted out there has to be something more defined, more grounded than just "a better Ireland".

We still hope that that will emerge in due course. Helping him on his way, Enda Kenny also presides over a much more serious contract, the one between the two main opposition parties. This is formal and structured, and it is the deal on which the business of trying to win power will be based. Earlier opportunities for change were so based in the past, and sometimes worked.

We are currently waiting for the economic details of that part of the contract while the hitch involving a real measure of difference over stamp duty is sorted out. But in general terms the evolution of a partnership that can be trusted is taking place, and is finding a public response.

One could add that there is also a sub-contract, less formal, more like an offer, embracing the Green Party, many of whose policies are desirable in terms of that sought-after "quality of life" so flagrantly absent from so many people's hard-pressed existence at this time.

Two weeks on from the occasion of that speech and it would seem that the resonance of the contract idea has strengthened. It is necessary because there are real ideological differences between the three parties which might form a partnership government, differences that are given cohesion by the desire to restore better democratic ways of moving forward.

In two full terms in power, Fianna Fail has attempted to strip the opposition of its legitimate parliamentary voice and has managed to transfer away from the Dail, and therefore political accountability, much of the country's vital work. There has been a lessening and a withdrawal of democracy. This includes the management outside the Dail of huge areas of public concern - health, investment, the central wage and working practice partnership and control over wages and inflation.
The parties in power have repeatedly made a mockery of the legislative process, reducing the work of deputies and of senators to a trivial level of fleeting comment and of frustration.

This is a natural result of being in power for too long. It has led to an arrogant disregard for the democratic processes and for political accountability. Persistent hacking at this from the opposition benches has clearly indicated the frustration and seems, in part, to have energised party support around the country, changing the possible post-election map in favour of the opposition parties.
The two parties in power of course also had a contract, but it has ceased to work between them in any meaningful way. The larger party has all but swallowed up the smaller one. Michael McDowell, instead of being his own party's leader, has become a spokesman for an introverted, Fianna Fail leadership of the partnership in power.

The breach seemed to have happened over the revelation of Bertie's financial dealings and the "dig-out" by his friends. This embarrassing piece of political wrong-doing and its attempted cover-up, aided by an uncertain Michael McDowell, was the "tipping-point". Since then the contract, such as it is, seems neither to impinge on the public nor seems capable of offering "a better Ireland".
The very concept of "a better Ireland" has become too complicated for the simplistic interpretation by Fianna Fail of what they might mean - if indeed they mean anything at all - in respect of the passing of laws and the solving of growing waves of problems. For the Progressive Democrats the confusion of what they stand for is growing.

IN his Ard Fheis speech of a fortnight ago, Enda Kenny also understood that promises are of far less value, in the forthcoming election, than credibility and integrity. He made a joke about "standing knee-deep in the wreckage of broken promises" a week after Bertie Ahern had wrecked his own integrity by doing a U-turn on electioneering based on promises. And Kenny left that observation to sink in.
It came at just the right time for the opposition parties with Dick Roche's arrogant and inept handling of the water crisis in Galway. The Government is beset by difficulties and the election clock is ticking. The date has been revised and revised again. And Bertie is increasingly vulnerable.

The best approach for the high contracting parties, Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens, is to sit tight and check every announcement and manifesto detail to ensure it does not become a hostage to fortune, a source of self-inflicted wounds. Elections are lost by those in power far more often than won by those attempting to take over.