Recent news reports suggest that up to nine sitting Fine Gael TDs have signalled that they may not be contesting the next general election.
In an age of spin and tightly controlled party political narratives, the fact that 25% of the entire Fine Gael parliamentary party may be opting out tells its own story about the recent direction of the party under the leadership of Leo Varadkar.
But first, maybe it’s worth looking at how Fine Gael got to this position. In power now for an incredible 12 years, the party has had the opportunity to shape Ireland in a way that even rivals Fianna Fáil never had in recent times.
Back in 2011, Fine Gael stormed to power with a political agenda that included sorting out the country’s finances and a programme of political reform. It had the feel of a no nonsense popular programme for change. With the country on its knees, it was a once in a generation opportunity to actually change the way Ireland worked. With what many consider to be a friendly media, Fine Gael were also in a position to make the far-reaching reforms that most previous governments were unable to do.
With the appointment of Paschal O Donohoe as Minister for Finance in 2017, the party was even better positioned to do this. Unlike, most former Irish finance ministers, O Donohoe has a degree in economics meaning that he was in a unique position to drive economic reform.
But what has O Donohoe’s legacy been? Far from sorting out the financial mess left by Fianna Fáil, the National Debt has now spiralled to a staggering quarter of a trillion euro. Under O Donohoe, Fine Gael appear to have adopted the classic old Fianna Fáil stratagem of using the public finances to massage public opinion for the benefit of the party rather than taking difficult decisions in the interests of the country
It’s worth remembering that under his watch, the number of Irish banks has been reduced from five to three. The same monopolistic culture can be found in the insurance industry and many other areas of Irish life today. The affable O Donohoe may well be best remembered as the Minister for Finance who had the opportunity to deliver much but who ultimately squandered the opportunity.
Fine Gael in 2023 is more Garret Fitzgerald than W.T. Cosgrave. As such, it now leans to the left on economic matters and is avowedly liberal on social matters. This has formed the ideological direction of the party in its handling of matters over the last 12 years. So how successful has this ideological approach been in tackling the major issues of the day?
One of the key planks of Enda Kenny’s election manifesto in 2011 was the one about reducing the size of government and particularly, culling associated quangos and NGOs. That certainly hasn’t come to pass. In fact, most people now believe that the country’s unelected NGOs have embedded themselves in government to a degree never before seen, shaping government policy in everything from housing to migration.
The issue of housing has dominated the political agenda over Fine Gael’s time in office. In dealing with the rental crisis, their approach has drawn heavily on a leftist approach emphasizing rent controls and ever greater regulation. This was the approach taken by Fine Gael housing minister Simon Coveney in 2016 and has been ramped up considerably in the intervening years. But how successful has this policy been?
The RTB’s own figures now show that it’s been a spectacular failure. Rent controls have simply driven thousands of small time landlords from the rental market causing rents to rocket. All the while, the government has rolled out the red carpet for foreign investment funds who can scarcely believe their good fortune as the government eliminates their competition thereby allowing them to increase rents.
Compounding the housing crisis is a situation whereby the government is increasing demand for housing at the same time as supply, especially in the rental sector, is actually contracting. The increase in demand is being driven by government policies around accepting unlimited numbers of Ukrainian refugees and an increasingly liberal Open Borders policy with what many see as economic migrants entering the country’s asylum system.
This has had knock on effects not just on housing but also for the Irish tourism industry with 28% of all hotel accommodation now block-booked by the state. The official view appears to be that Irish tourism doesn’t need a budget or mid price sector although it’s hardly a view that will be shared by overseas visitors to Ireland or indeed Irish holiday makers. It now appears that the biggest threat to the Irish tourism industry is coming from….the activities of the Irish state.
No one knows if a de facto Open Borders policy is a solo run by the Green’s Roderic O Gorman or a collective Cabinet policy initiative. What is clear, however, is that it is exacerbating the existing housing crisis as well as now threatening the existence of the Irish tourism industry. The fact that the country is without a Minister for Justice at a time when migrants appear to be free to enter the country having destroyed their passports is hardly reassuring although the lamentable performance of Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee in Justice would hardly inspire confidence on that front.
While Garret FitzGerald outlined a tantalizing social democratic vision for Fine Gael in the 1980’s, it seems that Leo Varadkar is now delivering a social democratic shambles in everything from health to housing to welfare tourism. Nowadays, the only thing that is coherent about Fine Gael is the unrelenting party messaging and news management much of which takes place against the backdrop of a largely compliant Irish media.
Yet, all the evidence suggests that increasingly, the public are seeing through the official spin. Given the news that about 25% of the Fine Gael parliamentary party may not be contesting the next general election, it may well be that a lot of Fine Gael TDs no longer believe their own party’s spin. Only time will tell if they are right in thinking that the wheels are coming off the Fine Gael bandwagon.