The new politics – Op-ed for Sunday Business Post

19th August, 2016

estimation of Brendan Howlin does not rise. My predecessor led this department at a time of national crisis. Decisions were so tough. Spending was cut, public pay was reduced and serious reforms were implemented.


I genuinely wish him well in his role as leader of the Labour Party. As a citizen and also as a Fine Gael member and minister, I believe that Ireland needs a strong Labour Party.


As a member of the last Cabinet I regularly saw Brendan acknowledge the value of public service and political leadership. This makes his article last week – ‘Stalled out with the ‘do-nothing’ coalition’ all the more puzzling and disappointing.


He has joined the long list of populist Opposition critics who have decided that a new form of politics is a failure. This definitive determination has been reached with this Government after just 100 days in Office.


So let’s take a step back to review the broader features of this still new Oireachtas and its offspring – ‘New Politics’.


First, a strong majority of elected Oireachtas members are in favour of improving the ‘system’, not over throwing it. The default cheerleaders either did not get elected in any great numbers or have changed their tune in response to a recovery that they said would never happen. This is not the case in many European countries at the moment. We under-estimate this at our peril.


Second, the best example of this is in relation to our membership of the European Union and the Eurozone. Again, a substantial majority exists in the current Oireachtas in favour of our continued membership of both.


Our collective response to the Brexit result tapped into a national political vein that understands that our place in Europe is fundamental to the realisation of the political freedoms of individual Irish citizens. This is in marked contrast to other countries. Maybe this is so important that we take it for granted. We should not.


Third, this new form of Irish government is a regular feature of European government. But this does not mean that it will be plain sailing. The last election dealt a new deck of cards. They were shuffled in a new way. There are still a few jokers. But we have a responsibility to play this hand as best we can.


So, Brendan cannot have it both ways. He cannot demand consensus and then bemoan the lack of action when consensus is not achieved. This is a new and slightly bemusing feature of the critics of New Politics. They don’t like how it works. But they equally didn’t support the Old Politics either.


What’s more, their future bemoaning the lack of Dáil guillotines or exasperation with Dáil debates cannot yet be ruled out. They might come full circle yet.


Many of the changes in Oireachtas procedure will benefit our country. But benefits from these changes are intangible, incremental and take years to happen. This is the very reason there is so little enthusiasm for such reforms. But I know that Brendan understands this well.


However I am not starry eyed. Anything but. There are big risks too. Of course, there are recent changes that I wish were otherwise. Bad ideas run the clear risk of becoming bad laws. Old habits with the demand for new politics has the potential for a slow motion disaster movie. Stagnation is all too easy. Due process within the Oireachtas and Government must be followed.


But I suspect that this moment in our political development may well signal a convergence with European political norms. I believe the Irish people will be better served by this in the long-run.


And our role as a Government? We are a plucky under-dog Government. Fine Gael and our Independent colleagues will rise to the challenge. It has, I accept, taken time to get to grips with this new political dimension. But the Irish people, I think, understand this in a way that our elected critics will not acknowledge.


The charge too that nothing has been achieved is patent rubbish. Important legislation has been passed to deal with the selling of prescription drugs, to increase the powers of An Garda Síochána to confiscate the proceeds of crime and to introduce paternity leave for dads. A new and strengthened Housing Action Plan was launched. Additional funding was provided for health services and the fight against organised crime. Substantial progress has been made in the roll-out of a national broadband plan.


Crucially, unemployment continues to fall and the need to borrow to fund our schools and hospitals has decreased. More unions are now on the way to joining the Lansdowne Road Agreement.


So progress has been made. This Government will achieve more. We will protect our country at a crucial time. We will support economic growth and use this growth, which Fine Gael, and our colleagues in the Labour Party, laid the foundations for, to support communities and families.


To dismiss absolutely everything, particularly when you have experience of governing, is to subtly support those populist cheerleaders who are undermining the foundations of centrist politics throughout the world. Brendan and I are part of this centre. We both know how much there is at stake.