LOOKING across at the ranks of government TDs reinforced the message sent by the people on February 25 last. It was not just the number of them that struck me, but rather their youth and freshness, a youth and freshness not reflected in the formation of the Cabinet.
It would be peevish to carp at the Government after only a few days, so I will refrain. The vagueness of many of the recommendations in the Programme for Government, not to mention those opinions too weakly held to make it into the programme (like greater gender balance and reducing the number of junior ministers) leaves sufficient material for many critical articles in the weeks and months ahead.
Instead I wish to use my first article of the 31st Dail to focus on more positive matters. Congratulating my constituency colleague Michael Noonan in the Dail on his much-deserved appointment as Minister for Finance, I observed that while there are supposed to be two ministers with responsibility for finance, Michael will become known in Limerick as the real Finance Minister in the same way the late Jack Lynch was known in Cork as the real Taoiseach.
Michael’s appointment is probably the most important on the Fine Gael side, not just because he is an experienced and skilled politician, but because the ups and downs he has endured across his own career equip him to deal with the vicissitudes this administration has in store.
His steady, calm and confident performances during the election were a major factor in Fine Gael’s campaign success, indeed the improvement in Fine Gael’s fortunes since he took the finance portfolio is due in no small part to the public responding to his more reassuring approach as he steered Enda away from pious generalities on the economy.
It is hard to recall that this is the man who led Fine Gael to its disastrous 2002 result. His return to pre-eminence is proof of how forgiving the Irish public can be when you are seen to learn the lessons and listen to their concerns.
While Michael remains Fine Gael’s greatest strength, Labour’s greatest achievement is its success in putting an end to Fine Gael’s plans to abandon military neutrality. Fine Gael’s manifesto had promised to scrap the UN resolution component of the Triple Lock and thus abandon the principle of multilateralism.
So successful was Labour in its endeavour that they had the new Fine Gael Minister for Defence (and Justice and Equality) invoking the Triple Lock in a press release issued on his first full day in office.
This clear achievement stands in contrast to the messy compromise in respect of public-sector reform. According to the Programme for Government, it seems that Labour is not only accepting that the numbers in the public service will have to be cut by 25,000, but that they have agreed to wield the axe themselves.
I recall Minister Joan Burton stating that reducing public service numbers by anything above 18,000 would involve cuts to frontline services. Yet, according to the Programme for Government, it appears that Labour is signed up to making cuts in frontline staff of around 7,000 and reducing frontline services. Indeed, the Tanaiste seems to have agreed a carve-up that sees his colleagues in the frontline of much of the cutting across Government.
The new Taoiseach and Government have given themselves a target of 100 days to make major changes and reforms. While they have shown a capacity to manage the early political optics well, the vagueness on the substance of their proposals would not suggest it will be 100 days of specific actions and deliverables.
Notwithstanding these concerns, I do wish the new administration well. It comes to office having raised the hopes of so many people. It is in no one’s interests in mainstream politics to see these hopes cruelly dashed.