New dawn or more of the same?
This time last year a political earthquake changed the shape of Irish politics. Fianna Fáil suffered the worst defeat in its history while Fine Gael, malady Labour and Sinn Féin made enormous and unprecedented gains. The losses suffered by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party were so great that many commentators questioned their survival. A Fine Gael-Labour coalition was formed with the largest majority in history. One year on, clinic how has the new government fared? Has it redefined the way politics operates or is it simply a case of new faces, medical same story?
The new government was hardly in office when there were allegations of broken promises. They were accused of back tracking on their promise to ‘burn the bondholders’. Leo Varadker promised: “Anglo Irish Bank is not getting another cent of our money.” However, the month after the election it was announced that Anglo Irish bank would receive another €24 billion from the state. The government has now categorically stated it will not impose any losses on bondholders.
There was outrage among students when Labour reneged on its promise not raise student fees. During the election, Ruairí Quinn signed a USI pledge not to raise fees and promised to reverse the previous hike by Fianna Fáil. Eamon Gilmore declared that: “Labour is opposed to third level fees by either the front or back door.” Fine Gael’s manifesto also promised that: “We will not further increase the registration fee.” However, as Minister of Education, Ruairí Quinn raised the student registration fee by €250.
Both Fine Gael and Labour’s manifestos contain promises to renegotiate the EU-IMF deal. However, once in power, Enda Kenny made it clear that he would not negotiate a new deal or fundamentally change the current one. Legal reasons prevented the promised end to upward-only rent reviews. Corporate donations were not banned, as promised, but lowered. Promises to reduce the number of TDs and quangos have been significantly scaled down. The jobs budget has critics arguing it is a mere PR stunt, rather than an actual plan.
There was considerable embarrassment for the government over its promise to keep Roscommon hospital open. During the election, Enda Kenny declared: “We are committed to maintaining the services at Roscommon General Hospital.” However, one of the first actions of the government was to close its emergency unit. This led to allegations that Kenny made promises he had no intention of keeping, solely to gain power.
The government has had some successes, most notably the reduction in the interest rate on the EU-IMF bailout, which will save over €9 billion. The corporation tax rate has been maintained at 12.5%, which the government claim will be crucial to Ireland’s recovery. The referendum on reducing judge’s pay was passed overwhelmingly. The minimum wage was restored to €8.65 an hour and there has been an increase in Dáil sitting time.
The most crucial test of the new government will be how it handles the economy. Despite its rhetoric, thus far there has been no improvement in the economic situation. Unemployment has risen slightly from 14.3% to 14.8%. The flow of emigration has not slowed down, nor does the government seem to have a plan to end this crisis.
Although Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore promised a new dawn for Ireland, they seem to have continued the same policies as Fianna Fáil. A recurring criticism of the government is that it is implementing the exact same policies as Fianna Fáil, policies which they opposed in opposition. It is almost impossible to differentiate between speeches made by Fianna Fáil last year and those made by Fine Gael and Labour this year. While both Fine Gael and Labour opposed every spending cut in opposition, they have cut €3 billion in government. They opposed the bank guarantee and its renewal in opposition, but they support it in government. They promised to fundamentally reform politics and society, but have so far failed to live up to expectations.