A meaningless debate

This Wednesday night, Pat Kenny will moderate a debate between two men who agree with each other on almost everything. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin have, for all intents and purposes, been in Government together for the past four years. Nothing that Mr. Varadkar’s Government has done has been done without Mr. Martin’s approval. Anything that Fianna Fáil wanted to stop, or change, they had the power to stop, or to change.

The nature of confidence and supply agreements is very simple – the opposition supply confidence (support) to the Government. At any time, Fianna Fáil could have withdrawn that confidence. At every chance they were given, they did not withdraw it.

Defenders of Fianna Fáil will say that this is because the party believed in the need for stable government during the Brexit negotiations, and that an election would have been bad for the country. In part, this thinking reveals that on Brexit, to use just one example, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agree completely. But that’s not where it ends. The truth is they agree on absolutely everything.

In the past decade, Ireland has had three or four national referendums. Every time, FF and FG were on the same side. On every controversial piece of legislation, FF and FG were on the same side. Let’s have a look at the list:

  • On the decision to change gender laws to allow anyone in Ireland to walk into an office tomorrow and change their gender from female to male, or vice versa, without anything more than filling out a form, FF and FG agreed completely.
  • On the decision to grant ethnic status to travellers, both parties agreed completely
  • On immigration and direct provision, both parties agree completely
  • On the implementation of a carbon tax, complete agreement
  • On abortion, both parties agree totally
  • On Ireland’s relationship with the EU, there is no difference between them

Those are just a few, and perhaps they’re niche issues. What about the big issues? You know, crime, housing, the economy, and health? The truth is that there’s no disagreement between them there either.

On the economy, both parties agreed to take us into the EU’s fiscal compact treaty in 2011, meaning that the Government can run a maximum annual deficit of 3%. Their economic plans, as Pat Leahy noted the other day, are virtually identical:

What about crime? Sure, there’s a big song and dance about crime now because we have children being chopped up on our streets, but ask yourself this: When, over the past four years, did Fianna Fáil say that Fine Gael were taking the wrong approach on crime? The truth is that both parties have had an identical criminal justice agenda, focusing on nonsense like hate crime and hate speech legislation, and ignoring the actual crimes that have been taking place around the country.

What about health? FG has increased spending on health by 70% and delivered a disaster that costs us nearly twice as much as it did when they came to office. What’s Fianna Fáil’s answer? Spend more.

These two parties, and these two men, believe the exact same things about the world. If you want to know what they’re going to think about something in six month’s time, find out what some pressure group is saying today. Is the Simon Community in favour of a site value tax? That will be FF policy by June. Is Alcohol Action Ireland saying we should raise the price of a pint to €25? That will be in Fine Gael’s next budget.

The only thing that FF and FG can argue about is competence. This isn’t an election about policy, it’s a election about people. FF’s argument is that FG are incompetent, and FG’s argument is that FF were incompetent the last time they were in Government. These are the only two things that both parties are absolutely right about.

And it’s all meaningless. Neither party will truly “lead” the next Government. Sure, they’ll sit in the seats, whichever bunch we give slightly more votes to, but they won’t set the agenda. When FF were in Government with the PDs, it was a PD Government, with PD priorities. When they went in with the Greens, it was a Green government, with green priorities. When Labour went in with Fine Gael, Labour’s wishlist on social issues was enacted without question. When Shane Ross went in with Fine Gael, his local garda station was re-opened without question by the same Government that had just spent five years saying there was no need for that station.

Elections only matter, and debates between potential Taoisigh only matter, if there’s any real difference between them. In Ireland, there’s not. Everybody, in their heart of hearts, knows that there’s no difference between them. If we could, the best thing to do would be to cut out the middleman and elect the various NGOs and lobby groups to run the country, because they’re the ones who set FG and FF policy anyway.

If you’re interested in ideas, and policies, the best thing to do in an Irish election is to vote for whatever small party you’d most like to see making up the numbers.

They’re going to be the ones running the show, anyway. Ireland is going to have a Green Government, or a Labour Government, or a Sinn Fein Government, or a Healy Rae Government. It doesn’t really matter whether the rest of the seats in that Government are filled by FF or FG backsides.

It’s a meaningless debate. But here’s a tip for Varadkar, free of charge: When Martin says “you did this wrong” or “you did that wrong”, just shrug your shoulders and say “and you agreed with it. You could have voted us out at any time”.

What’s he going to say then?

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