There are two types of unpopular decision that Irish (and indeed, non-Irish politicians) make. The first are the unavoidable we-have-no-money ones, decisions that are made when infinite demands and finite resources invariably collide. We have to tolerate these.
But then, there is the second type. These are the avoidable ones, decisions that Irish politicians just can’t seem to stop making, decisions that lower the tone of Irish politics, yet they just can’t resist, from promising that school X or hospital Y will be untouched by cutbacks, promises they know in their hearts that they can’t keep.
In 1992, within weeks of an historic breakthrough in terms of seat numbers, Dick Spring shattered the credibility of the Labour party by entering government with Fianna Fail, having spent the election campaign giving the clear impression that a vote for Labour was a vote to remove Fianna Fail from government. Labour lost half their seats five years later, an electoral outcome of which that decision was certainly a major factor. What was interesting about that decision was that Spring had a choice. He could have joined a Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left coalition, but he didn’t, and so paid a price for it. But whatever about his reasons for doing so, and they were of a strategic error basis rather than for personal gain, the same cannot be said for the government’s surreal behaviour over salaries for government advisers.
Could Enda just have told his cabinet that €92,000 was the going rate for a ministerial special advisor, and that was that? Yes he could. Would the parliamentary party have rebelled? Would ministers have resigned? No and no. Would the public have supported him? Of course they would.
Yet he didn’t. When the decision came before him, he bottled out, put political relationships ahead of the national good, and sided with his professional political supporters not just against the public but against his own stated policy. What was he thinking as he sat alone in his office, pondering the decision? Did he know he was creating the first albatross to be hung around the neck of his government?
It’s the same with throwaway gimmick lines that politicians think will pander to voters, and come back and get them. When Enda told us in his state of the nation that the economic crisis was “not our fault” it didn’t help him politically, but actually caused him more problems, as people asked the obvious “then why are WE paying for it?”. The reaction to his recent remarks in Davos (where he accidentally told the truth) showed that five seconds of rhetorical bliss on his lips is turning into increased political weight on his hips. Can they not see this? Why do they shit all over their own government?