Political turmoil in Ireland could see some familiar faces make dramatic exits. KEVIN MEAGHER reports
A FASCINATING piece in the Irish Times recently suggested that a clear-out of many of Fine Gael’s most senior politicians is on the cards at the next Irish general election.
The report alleged that party leader and Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, as well as minister for public spending, Pascal Donohoe, and even former foreign minister Simon Coveney, could be on the way out.
If true, it’s dramatic stuff.
With Tánaiste Micheál Martin under pressure from his own troops in Fianna Fáil, it might well be a case of “all change” in Dublin.
His TDs recently discussed creating a deputy leader’s position to help get the party in shape ahead of the next election.
Fair enough, but they didn’t bother to tell their boss — who was out of the county at the time.
A not-too-subtle slap in the face for Martin and hints at growing tensions among the ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ at the party’s dismal polling performance.
If Martin and Varadkar both depart frontline politics that would be the end of ‘Maradkar.’
But with Sinn Féin still miles ahead of either party in every single opinion poll, we could be looking at neither of the old parties leading the government for the first time in the State’s history.
Many believe Mary Lou McDonald is a dead cert to lead the next government — with one bookie having her as 4/11 favourite.
So, a new Taoiseach and opposition leader after the next election – as well as a new President in 2025, when Michael D Higgins retires after completing two terms in office.
What might an entirely new cast of characters in Irish politics mean?
A Sinn Féin-led government would signal a big change of direction in two main regards.
First, a renewed focus on the inequalities that scar the south.
Ireland’s remarkable economic success does not translate fairly, with housing and living costs crippling ordinary family budgets.
The second big change would be a quickening of the tempo in relation to Irish unity with the establishment of a citizen’s assembly to kick-start the process.
As well as change in Dublin, the eventual restoration of the Northern executive could lead to Sinn Féin governing in both jurisdictions on the island, when Michelle O’Neill takes up her role as First Minister.
Of course, just as O’Neill would need to share power with the DUP, so, too, Mary Lou McDonald might need coalition partners, leaving open the prospect of either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael remaining in government with her.
There are people in both parties that are more thoughtful when it comes to envisioning policy changes that would make Ireland fairer and more united than either Varadkar or Martin proved to be.
For instance, figures like Jim O’Callaghan in Fianna Fáil and Neale Richmond in Fine Gael have made useful contributions to the debate on Irish unity recent years.
It opens up the possibility of a new consensus in Dublin around spreading wealth and opportunity more evenly, as well as agreeing the approach that takes us to a border poll on Irish unity in the next few years.
Just as a postscript, I have to say, the inclusion of Coveney in those potentially walking the plank, is fascinating.
Still only 50, I was amazed to read that he’s been a TD for 28 years.
A classic case of too much too soon?
Boom and bust
Having fully bounced back from Covid, the Irish economy is seeing government coffers overflowing.
Figures from the Department of Finance show half-year tax receipts amounted to just under €41 billion in the year to June.
This is 11 per cent higher (€4 billion more) than the same period last year.
The amount of corporation tax received was a record €10.5 billion – up a fifth - with the department predicting this figure will hit a record €24 billion by the end of the year.
And thanks to a strong labour market and domestic consumption, income tax receipts were up nine per cent and VAT nearly 14 per cent.
While the South booms, the North’s prospects could not be bleaker.
Northern Ireland is undergoing a so-called ‘punishment budget’, leading to deep cuts to frontline services.
This includes scrapping swimming lessons for children, halving funding for special educational needs and cutting a grant that pays for meals for poorer children during school holidays.
Reaction from the Northern Ireland director of children’s charity Barnardo's, Michele Janes, was blunt: ‘We will pay the price for these cuts for many years to come.’
With no executive in place, civil servants are resigned to taking one unpopular decision after another, under pressure to balance the books and make £800 million in savings.
It’s a tactic endorsed by the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, who is trying to shame the DUP back into government. So far, it’s showing little sign of success, serving only to underline what a basket case Northern Ireland truly is.
Twenty-five years of (relative) peace has not done much for its economy.
The cash-strapped statelet is still unable to wash its own face, financially, wholly reliant on the British exchequer to stay afloat, to the tune of about £10 billion a year.
This is not lost on unionists, who often crow that Dublin cannot afford to take the place on. It always strikes me as a bizarre argument, using the very brokenness of Northern Ireland’s economy as a justification for not joining with the rest of the country and thus becoming part of one of the most dynamic economies in the world.
Meanwhile, the DUP remains in a holding pattern, hoping to squeeze some further concession out of the British government that might placate his hardliners and justify a return to power-sharing later in the year.
But Jeffrey Donaldson dares not even think of moving, ahead of the loyalist marching season.
So Northern Ireland’s people – Protestant and Catholic alike – are left with a stagnant economy, collapsing public services, a cost-of-living crisis and only a slim prospect of this changing any time this year.
The comparison between the two jurisdictions’ economic fortunes could not be starker.
Dublin is swimming in cash while Belfast is drowning.