Sunday January 08 2006
THESE days, Christmas begins in September. And general election campaigns begin over a year before there has to be an election. All around us, potential candidates already circle each other like rabid dogs, desperate to win nominations at selection conventions. Party leaders indulge in sly manoeuvres, floating speculative policies (which they can drop if the reception is unpromising).
Like teenagers eyeing up the neighbourhood talent, they're all saying who they would and wouldn't get into bed with. And their promises are as dependable as the sincere assurances of a horny teenager.
The air is full of the sounds of political junkies pawing the ground and howling. Already they're telling us everything we don't need to know about percentage swings and third preferences. For many commentators, the election is less an exercise in democracy and more an opportunity to display their knowledge of the effects of boundary changes in obscure corners of various constituencies. They sound like racing tipsters brandishing their inside knowledge of the effects of 'soft going'.
All this turns elections into glorified TV game shows, where the candidates preen and we vote them in or out.
As the game show begins, let us make two assertions. 1) The current Government is the worst in the history of the State. 2) We'll probably put them back in office.
There are many people (several of them named Ahern) who might refute the assertion that this is the worst Government in the history of the State. And it's true that there's indeed strong competition for that title.
It's true that the old Cumann na nGael government had a gombeen soul. And that Eamon de Valera was steeped in an unwarranted smugness. The 1948 inter-party government was politically artless. The Cosgrave government of the Seventies was economically incoherent and careless of civil liberties. The Lynch government was economically reckless. The Haughey government was headed by a criminal kleptomaniac for whom power and self-aggrandisement were ends in themselves.
We could list the failings of all of those regimes, but governments are measured not just by what they did - they are also measured against what the possibilities were.
Next June, Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney begin their 10th straight year in Government. In the history of the State, only two other governments had such a lengthy innings.
From 1922, WT Cosgrave was nine years in office. He was engulfed in civil war, presided over dozens of executions, endured the assassination of a leading minister and faced four elections (not to mention a Fianna Fail opposition whose guns hadn't gone away, you know). In those first few rocky years of the State's existence, survival was an achievement.
De Valera was 16 straight years in office - during a global economic depression and a world war, an IRA campaign (to which he responded with hangings), and in that time he faced no fewer than seven general elections. Jack Lynch had a seven-year stretch - during which time the North exploded, there were repeated plots against him and he sacked two ministers for importing guns.
Other governments, with three or four years to make their mark, endured periods of violent unrest, political instability and almost always high unemployment, emigration and economic uncertainty.
Look at the possibilities open to Ahern and Harney when they took power in 1997.
The economy had already been growing for five years. GDP growth of 2.6 per cent in 1992 went to 9.7 per cent in 1995, and by the time Ahern/Harney arrived in 1997 growth had reached an amazing 10.7 per cent. Employment was growing at a similar pace. Previous governments were dogged by daily violence in the North - the armed conflict had effectively ended three years before Ahern/Harney came to office.
In short - in the history of the State, no government has come into office with such an astonishing level of available wealth and political stability.
And this is not a Reynolds or a Lemass government, nor an interparty interlude - this wasn't a government here for two, three or four years and then gone. In their 10th year in office, Ahern/Harney face re-election with a reasonable chance of getting back. This Government, blessed with a weak Opposition, has long known that it might well last 15 or 20 years. It had the freedom to plan ahead with confidence that it had the time and the resources to do just about anything a government might want to do. No government in the history of the State has had such opportunities.
And as we approach the 10th year of Ahern/Harney, we're still arguing over just how many hundreds of patients suffer daily on hospital trolleys. In the crucial areas of health and education, things are arguably worse now than when this Government came into office.
Let's not argue over this or that policy. Here's a question - let us imagine any other government in power for 10 years in such circumstances. From that of WT Cosgrave in the Twenties, to Lemass, or Lynch or FitzGerald or even Liam Cosgrave in the Seventies. I write this as someone who is not a fan of any of those governments - but who knows the difference between basic competence and its opposite.
Yes, we can imagine the ideologies of such governments, and their idiosyncrasies, leading them in one lamentable direction or another. But is it at all possible that after two terms of such opportunities Sean Lemass would still be making excuses every time a ceiling collapsed in a prefab classroom?
(Let's leave the Haughey government aside. One can barely begin to imagine the forms of thievery in which Haughey might have indulged had he governed in a period of such phenomenal riches.)
Would Lynch or FitzGerald or either of the Cosgraves, blessed with uncounted billions, be promising that if we gave them yet another five years they'd stop fumbling around the A&E wards and finally get right one of the most fundamental aspects of government - emergency health care?
Had a government of average competence and rudimentary imagination been in power for so long in a time of unimaginable wealth, is it at all possible that vast acres of schoolrooms would still be without proper heating or ventilation? That so many classrooms would have 29 or 30 pupils? That school managements would be under such pressure that it would be difficult to recruit teachers willing to take on the job of principal?
Had they not arrived in office when the economy was booming, the Ahern/Harney incompetence would have been obvious. The boom created a buffer zone of complacency - throw money into high-profile projects, cut taxes to boost consumption, subsidise the private sector and trust in market forces. And when it goes wrong - trust consumers to wallow in their smugness and vote for more, please.
Today, we accept that a tunnel that cost hundreds of millions leaks like a cheap shoe. We assume that the glue holding down the tracks on a fabulously expensive train system is as hardy as a cardboard crib made by four-year-olds at playschool.
Oh, just pump a few more hundred millions into private coffers. Government estimates are off by billions? Sure, not to worry.
And they'll probably get re-elected. Why? Partly because there's a bum opposition. Mostly the SSIA scam.
In 2001, they decided to allocate billions to a free-money scheme - scheduled to be paid out during 2006 and 2007 - to ensure their re-election.
That our own money should be used to create a re-election slush fund, while basic public services remain in tatters, is a final proof of the cynicism that makes this easily the worst Government in the history of the State.
- Gene Kerrigan