The new Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland in the country’s hour of need is a bland 59-year-old County-Mayo-man, Enda Kenny, who rose without a trace through the ranks of his tepid Christian-Democratic party, Fine Gael, and who now finds greatness thrust upon him. But if, as they say, all political careers end in failure, the end is already nigh for Enda, who finds himself possessing (political) responsibility without (financial) power, in charge of a government that has surrendered to the extortionate, austerity-heavy ‘bailout’ plan agreed with the EU and IMF by his predecessors.
Enda and his party’s partners in the new Irish coalition, the barely-social-democratic Labour Party, have made it clear that they will continue to deny the basic unpayability of Ireland’s debts — the consequence of busted banks whose obligations have been ‘socialized’ — right up until the day in, perhaps, 2012 or 2013 when the country is likely to default.
This week, though, as the new parliament returns, it’s all about the theatrical parading of ‘change’. Fianna Fail, something close to a permanent party of government since 1932, got hammered in the election on February 25th, and returned on Wednesday with a parliamentary party that could almost have been dropped off on Kildare Street in a mini-van — just 20 TDs (the Irish-language abbreviation for MPs) in a house of 166. Most of the party’s leading figures, including former taoiseach Brian Cowen, are gone, either voluntarily retiring or being retired by the voters in their constituencies. Their erstwhile partners in government, the Green Party, are missing entirely: they were wiped out by the justifiably angry electorate.
And into their place on the government side come Fine Gael and Labour, with the biggest parliamentary majority in the history of the southern Irish state. The headline in their program for government is simple: they’ll simply carry out the first two years, at least, of the four-year plan that the old government took under dictation from the international bureaucrats and financiers at their elbows. It’s a plan that will see billions and billions more euros flushed out of the economy to pay for the sins of the bankers, and to address the deficit that suddenly emerged when the property bubble burst, and the state’s overwhelming reliance on it for revenue became horribly clear.
Kenny was nominated by the youngest member of the parliament’s lower house, callow 24-year-old Simon Harris — who was my journalism student at Dublin Institute of Technology until about five years ago, when he left to pursue his public life. (Yes, the politicians are getting younger.) Following that nomination and a pro-forma debate, Kenny was elected taoiseach by an astonishing 117 votes to 27, with only Sinn Fein and a mostly left-wing group of non-party TDs voting against him. The reliably deferential Irish Times journalist Stephen Collins wrote in Thursday’s paper: “The scale of the new Taoiseach’s majority reflected the outcome of a dramatic election…” But the election was not especially dramatic and Kenny’s party won only 36 per cent of first-preference votes throughout the Republic. The scale of the majority reflects Fine Gael’s clever working of the sort-of-proportional system by which TDs are elected, and the willingness of Labour to throw in their lot with a right-wing party in government.
There is now great media excitement about the precise divvying out of the Cabinet spoils, who gets what job, but the phrase “deck chairs on the Titanic” has rarely been more apt.
There was some special irony in the fact that the New York Times on Wednesday evening reported that Enda Kenny was, in fact, a woman: “Ms. Kenny”, the Times called him, twice, in a short item in the ‘World Briefing’ section. Although some eagled-eyed viewers have suggested he resembles Margaret Thatcher, Kenny is a man, and his new Cabinet is very nearly all man as well. Among the 15 senior jobs, only two are filled by women, and they are low-profile, stereotypical ones: Minster for Social Protection — the latest fancy name for ‘welfare’ — and a newly created post, Minister for Children.
Since executive influence resides more in the European Central Bank than around the Cabinet table, the question of gender balance is more about optics than about power. But they’re pretty miserable optics for the ‘change’ story, especially when you consider that 10 of the 15 ‘new’ senior ministers also served as ministers the last time Fianna Fail was out of power, for a couple of brief years, in the mid-1990s.
The opposition side is more interesting. Fianna Fail abstained on the vote for taoiseach, with its leader Micheal Martin seemingly hesitant about appearing to oppose a new government that is carrying out almost exactly the same policies as the old one of which he was part. So Sinn Fein and left-wing independents, five of the most able and articulate ones grouped under the label United Left Alliance, will be doing the most vigorous opposing. Sinn Fein suddenly finds itself in the position where it can, at least symbolically, emerge as the main party of the Left — with Labour stuck in a right-leaning government — and perhaps also as the main party of opposition. It may seem an almost parochial position for Gerry Adams to find himself in, after the last 15 years when he has ‘bestrode the globe’ as an international statesman and architect of the Irish peace process. But he and his party are not yet fully trusted in the Republic across much of the political spectrum, and he has an opportunity now to build it from the 10 per cent support it won last month.
The United Left Alliance contains some of the best speakers in the new parliament, including the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins. But Higgins would be the first to admit that it will take much more than parliamentary eloquence to resist the policies of the new government, and of its foreign masters. The Irish people have not really come out in great numbers in more than a couple of isolated and polite demonstrations since this crisis struck three years ago. Many of us reckoned the people were waiting to take vengeance on the governing parties in an election. Vengeance is done now, and the new government shows every sign of being as bad as the old one, willingly clamped into the straitjacket presented by those who run the madhouse of international politics and capital. It’s well past the time for Irish people to follow the leads of Cairo and Madison and take to the streets.