It was a week that brought warnings about the need for good government, if you knew where to look.
The Coalition’s most comfortable and cohesive double act, that between Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and Public Spending Minister Michael McGrath, kicked off Monday with their summer economic statement, and with it some intense months of negotiations budgets.
McGrath is originally from Cork, so he doesn’t need to travel far for his holidays; Donohoe has been known to hit a bit in West Cork in August. But both men are likely to be back at their desks earlier this year as the budget has been moved from October to the end of September and there are plenty of hungry mouths to feed around the Cabinet table.
The two men announced an impressive budget of 6.7 billion euros; but even with the extra money they will release that day – at least an extra billion for immediate cost-of-living measures, a cabinet minister says confidently – it won’t go far enough to keep the ministers around the table happy. The truth is that McGrath and Donohoe are trying to do two things at the same time – adjusting to a normal post-Covid fiscal environment and dealing with a cost-of-living crisis simultaneously. Either would be difficult; doing both at the same time may not be possible.
Ministers and interest groups will spend the next two months hounding budget officials for a bigger slice of the pie; the only people concerned with keeping government spending plans sustainable are in the finance and public expenditure departments. It is difficult to conclude that our budget process is conducive to good government. In fact, all incentives work the other way around.
The next day in the Dáil, the government announced that it would rush through a plethora of laws ahead of next week’s recess. Five bills, including the mica-affected homeowners compensation bill and emergency legislation to address the European Court’s ruling on gardaí’s retention of phone records in the Graham Dwyer case , were submitted to their committee and the final stages in five hours on Wednesday. Union leader Ivana Bacik complained loudly. “Not good enough and not acceptable,” Brendan Howlin said in his contribution, and he’s right: rushing through controversial legislation without scrutiny doesn’t ensure good government.
Notice, we should put these failures into perspective. Compared to that next door, Irish politics is a beacon of rationality and reasonableness. There are many things in public life and – don’t we know – in public services that do not work as well as they should. But there are a lot of important things that work well.
After a long period of not doing so, we now have a largely well-controlled political class. And we also have a reliable, independent way to decide if they broke the law. That didn’t seem to matter much in the UK of late, when breaking the law was ignored, politicians played fast and loose and the blame fell on other people.
Leo Varadkar was caught up in an old-fashioned scoop about leaking a government document to a crony – in truth, a venial sin at worst and one that, by definition, was authorized by the head of government (that is- i.e. himself). The gardaí were called in to investigate and did so long and tediously; they concluded their work and sent a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions; she considered it and decided that no prosecution was warranted. Varadkar had not broken the law.
This is how the system is supposed to work, and it will be enough for most people. Not enough, never enough for the splenic political guerrillas who run their campaigns on social media. But it should be good enough for the rest of us. If we come on the scene when it’s not good enough, then we have reason to worry about our democracy. Like, right now, our closest neighbors.
The collapse of the British government this week was watched in Ireland with a mixture of amusement, horror, hope and fascination. Westminster politics have long swung between tragedy and farce, but as the resignations rolled in on Wednesday night and Boris Johnson locked himself in bunker number 10, his henchmen only surfacing to deliver messages of mad defiance, he seemed decidedly more like the latter.
More seriously, it has become clear that the UK – the world’s fifth largest economy, a nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a country regarded by much of the world for its political standards , government, law and leadership – had nothing that could remotely be called a functioning government. Even now, two days after Johnson was amputated and forced to declare he would step down, it is unclear whether he has a viable executive.
Britain’s downgrading of its own values has direct and real effects in Ireland, of course. But well beyond that too. Last week, at a seminar organized by the European Parliament’s office in Dublin on the awarding of this year’s Sakharov Prize to imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Irish-based human rights lawyer in London Caoilfhionn Gallagher recounted how, when she argues with repressive regimes over the detention of journalists, politicians and human rights defenders, she now often hears about them: but your government violates international law – what right do you have to lecture us?
Eternal vigilance, said Thomas Jefferson, is the price of freedom. He could have said the same thing about democracy and the rule of law. And, moreover, of good government.