It has been almost 12 years since the late Brian Lenihan found himself alone at the airport on a trip to Brussels. With the troika’s rescue operation imminent, he sat and watched the melting snow and concluded somberly, “Hell is at the gates.” A few months later, both ruling parties were crushed in a general election.
Given the strength of Ireland’s economy, it might seem alarming to think that the current government could be on a similar path to ruin. But warnings of power outages this winter – with weak winds depressing supplies and triggering a “system alert” from EirGrid last week – will raise real fears among coalition TDs. They could face, if not eternal damnation from voting, then a long sojourn in the political underworld.
While virtually every political commentator takes a foregone conclusion that Sinn Féin will win the next election, there are few certainties in politics — especially with election days almost three years away. But rest assured: just as no government could have survived the arrival of the troika, blackouts will shatter any hopes of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens in fighting the Sinn Féin surge.
It doesn’t matter if the governing parties are not to blame or if other countries have similar problems. At least some of the factors predate the trio’s inauguration or are entirely beyond their control — most notably the war in Ukraine and whether or not the wind blows, which is vital to power supplies.
Voters don’t even care about reasonable excuses. When the lights go out, so does the coalition. It’s just a matter of when. Voters do not forgive or forget when public services they take for granted are taken away.
The British winter of discontent in 1978-79 sparked a decade of Thatcherism that changed the UK forever. An Irish version with rising prices and blackouts would have similar political implications. How ironic when it is a power and heating crisis that finally brings Sinn Féin out of the cold.
This should be the best of times for Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar. Unemployment is at record lows, tax revenues are flying in like Celtic Tigers did and as the pandemic recedes, international comparisons show that Ireland had one of the lowest excessive death rates in the world during Covid.
The upcoming budget will match and surpass everything from the early to mid-noughties. Big tax cuts and welfare increases of around 15 euros a week are inevitable. And a number of one-off measures are added to the €6.7 billion package.
But the problem is that despite this massive giveaway, everyone will be worse off than they were 12 months ago because of rampant inflation. The government operates the political equivalent of sprinting on a treadmill set to a treadmill speed that is too high. Sooner or later they will fall flat on their faces.
Whatever the fault of these and previous governments for failing to prepare for an international energy crisis, the coalition cannot reasonably be blamed for global inflation, fueled in large part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But again, voters only see their standard of living affected and want the government to solve the problem. If it can’t, it’s its fault.
This is politics, as Sinn Féin understands only too well, with its blatantly populist pledge last week to increase welfare rates by €50.
Far from getting any praise next month, Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath are simply on a damage control exercise. No generosity will do.
All of this suggests that bookies are right to have Mary Lou McDonald as a chance to become Taoiseach after the next election. There is no question that even without the current cost of living/energy crisis, voters – especially young people – are increasingly turning to a public office unsullied Sinn Féin. Frustration at the continued failure to resolve the housing crisis has been and remains a major factor in this shift. Again, the fact that other countries face similar problems is neither here nor there.
So is the coalition completely hopeless? Not quite, but what worries her is that her fate is now out of her hands. They are dependent on events beyond their control – related to inflation and energy supplies – hostage to fortune. The bare minimum they need to say goodbye to Sinn Féin is for global inflation to fall well ahead of the next election. And above all, that the lights stay on.
Leo Varadkar once revealed that one of his favorite songs is Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, but it’s the lyrics of another Dylan classic that seem more relevant to his fate and that of the government: “The answer, my friend, blows in the wind. The answer is in the wind.” You’d better hope the wind will start blowing to make sure the lights stay on, including inside government buildings.
Shane Coleman presents “Newstalk Breakfast”
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/balance-of-power-energy-security-and-the-unforgiving-voter-41910088.html Balance of power: energy security and the unforgiving voter