Two years on, the ‘calamity coalition’ has survived – but from now on the dangers mount

Recent years have been tempestuous by anyone’s standards, but it looks like there won’t be a return to normal any time soon for this Government
John Downing

Not since the Civil War and the State’s foundation has any Irish government faced such a rolling series of successive bouts of turmoil.

First, an unexpected and unknown rampant pandemic which landed a shock bill in tens of billions, and still counting, over two years. Then, as Covid was perhaps petering out in late February of this year, it was straight into the first war in Europe for eight decades.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine displaced millions of unfortunate victims across the world, among them more than 30,000 people seeking refuge and support in Ireland. All that human suffering was swiftly compounded by the resulting energy price spiral, which quickly fed into inflation already being driven by post-Covid supply chain disruption.

Now, precisely two years into this Government’s lifespan, it very much looks like there will be no “return to normal” while it is in office.

Still, when this disparate three-party coalition of centre-sometimes-right Fine Gael; centre-sometimes-left Fianna Fáil; and ecological leftist Green Party took office on June 27, 2020, there were grounds for saying it would not last even two years.

Over six months there were a series of damaging errors, mainly by Fianna Fáil and a Green Party at war internally, but also compounded by Fine Gael lapses in the collegiality needed to make a coalition work. Between July and Christmas 2020 it truly earned the sobriquet of ‘Calamity Coalition’. But with the start of 2021, things began to slowly cohere, notably with good working relations between Micheál Martin and Eamon Ryan, though there were still sporadic lapses in the good colleague image of Leo Varadkar.

Yet it is easy to underestimate the need for cultural learning for three disparate political organisations about just how to pull together. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had to cope with disappointed party loyalists who felt the February 2020 general election was a deep disappointment.

Fine Gael caretaker Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his acting health minister, Simon Harris, had built a reputation and rising popularity during the initial periods of pandemic and lockdown in early spring 2020, while coalition-making talks waxed and waned. Pressure not to relinquish this by reducing Fine Gael visibility in the coalition is understandable to some extent.

It has to be said that the Government and its supporting health authorities handled the pandemic well, despite the odd glitch and some serious reverses. The vaccination programme started slowly but surprised many, this writer included, by the pace with which it built to considerable success.

It must also be acknowledged that many of the economic indicators – up to very recent times of war, energy crisis, and inflation – have gone from strength to strength on this Coalition’s watch. There is a record 2.5 million people at work, and government revenues are healthy for the medium term at least.

We must also remember, looking at the bigger picture on taking office, this Coalition’s key goals were tackling crises in housing and health, and ameliorating the effects of climate change. All three were impacted and slowed by Covid 19 and now they have been knocked sideways by war in Ukraine.

It is a fact that honouring Ireland’s obligation to cater for 30,000 Ukrainian war victims puts still more pressure on already strained housing and health. The economic fallout of war also affects costs in health and housing, while also playing havoc with efforts on climate, opening the prospect of a return to fossil fuel use and a resort to nuclear power at least indirectly, via imported energy.

Granted, the three government parties are faring poorly in opinion polls. But bear in mind that they have had to dish out a series of negatives to a nation already suffering badly from the pandemic and the war fallout.

Hard to be top of the pops amid all that. Far easier for Sinn Féin and others on the opposition benches to simply be right about all that is wrong, rather than defending tough decisions based on limited resources.

From now on, the dangers will mount. Next up is the “switcheroonie” where Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar pull another historic first and swap the office of Taoiseach and Tánaiste. And what odds on the Green Party seeking a Programme for Government review as they did after two-plus years in government the first time around? Internal dangers for renewed instability abound. But they must be tempered against a great gloomy energy and interconnected inflation crisis.

By December and the job switch, fuel availability may be a bigger issue than its price. It is imperative parliamentary members in all three political parties keep that in mind and act prudently.

So on balance, and so far, there are grounds for giving this coalition a B-plus rating – with a ritual injunction that they all “must try harder.” By now, they know two things.

First is that Government is slow, hard and a difficult role in which to show results. The second is that the global economic news tells us the years of great test are still only just beginning.


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