7 September 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

“The silly season is over,” a pugnacious Enda Kenny pronounced several times to the media prior to Tuesday’s first Cabinet meeting after the summer recess.
The Taoiseach was of course referring to that season of relative drought for newspeople that roughly equates with the calendar month of August – a time when the debating chambers of national and local politics fall silent, the courts in the main enter recess, and “hard” news is at a premium.
Newspapers and the broadcast media generally deploy two strategies to fill the vacuum – the aggrandisement of “soft” news, or the riskier stratagem of the “flyer”, the speculative gambit designed to create the appearance of significant happenings, which may or may not ultimately prove to have substance.
It was indulgence in some “flyer” fishing that Mr Kenny was implicitly accusing his eager inquisitors of as he made his way to the Cabinet table, specifically headlines suggesting that some strains had begun to manifest in the superstructure of the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition over proposed health cuts and the measures to be contained in what we are promised will be an end-of-year Budget of a severity unprecedented even by recent standards.
But if this was the import of the Taoiseach’s new catchphrase, events prior to and subsequent to its utterance show that he was fooling no one.
Minister for Health James Reilly’s subsequent statement that he would be instructing the HSE to avoid cuts to disabled services in accomplishing the €130 million savings it must generate was undoubtedly prompted by both political and public pressure – and it was an undisputed element of weekend news stories that Dr Reilly and Labour’s Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin had convened in urgent conclave in order to repair the Coalition rift that signalled spending reductions in sensitive areas of health expenditure had opened.
Tensions between parties in government are sometimes created more by sins of procedure than of principle and in this instance a fair degree of Labour’s disaffection seems to have arisen from the flawed consultation surrounding the proposals emanating from the HSE and Dr Reilly’s Dept.
But if the offence to Labour was equally if not more rooted in protocol than the finer points of political ethos, it was sufficiently grave to allow the dreaded prospect of an early election to slip into the mainstream of media speculation – something that would have been unthinkable prior to the summer recess.
The answer to the question rather mischievously posed in this leader headline is, of course, probably not.
There would be little in it for either of the Coalition partners or the country in general for a General Election to be foisted upon them at this point in time – no viably strong alternative combination of parties in power suggests itself, at least not one that could productively alter the difficult economic course upon which we are set, and the uncertainty such an eventuality would provoke in the minds of the purse-masters of Europe would likely undo the distinct but fragile progress that has been made towards fiscal recovery.
However, Labour’s grassroots sabre-rattling, and discontented murmurings from the Fine Gael backbenches, is something of which Mr Kenny and his Cabinet colleagues should take careful heed.
Rather than aiming barbs at the media, they should recognise the upswell of political unease as a storm warning, a foretaste of the difficulties the upcoming Budget will pose for their credibility as a Government and their ability to retain the already strained faith of the electorate when election time does come around again.
There is surely within the mammoth bureaucracy of the health service scope for spending reductions that would save frontline services and already under-resourced care providers from further suffering.
Dr James Reilly promised significant reforms in this area upon assuming office – what he has done so far has been cosmetic at best.
The next Budget will ask severe questions of the Government’s ability to live up to the promise of stimulating some real signs of revival in the economy, but its prelude thus far seems to promise nothing but more severity and hardship for the more vulnerable elements in our society.
Now is surely the time for the Taoiseach and his senior Ministers to engage directly with the people and tell us in plain terms just what further sacrifices we will be expected to make in the hope of some distant brighter future – and show us just how all the severity to which we are being subjected will be to our ultimate benefit.
As the loud and effective protests that helped avert – for now – some of the threatened health cuts has demonstrated, there are more than just internal rumblings of discontent at the course the Coalition is pursuing.
TDs and local councillors have had their earnings brought into the spotlight this week – and some of the figures that have emerged make disquieting reading.
It has been this newspaper’s tendency to defend political representatives, particularly the local variety, from a good deal of the criticism they customarily receive.
The local newspaper’s perspective is one that, while it sometimes shows the elected occupants of our local authority assemblies in less than flattering light when they indulge in political posturing and petty squabbling, is also insightful of the good that they do when they function in the public interest and in fulfilment of the important democratic principle their existence embodies.
There was a time when those who got elected to county and town councils were meagrely recompensed – that day would appear to be over, and local politicians now have the difficult task of justifying a level of earnings that appears positively lavish in a contemporary landscape where many of those who elected them are struggling to sustain themselves and their families on low incomes.
Councillors are well fit to argue their own corner when it comes to their rewards – witness the particularly robust defence issued at this week’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council by Mayor Hugh McElvaney, the national chairman of the Local Authority Members’ Association.
But they are surely, when radical restructuring of local government is in the offing, batting on a sticky wicket if they don’t accept the need for some reform of their manifold sources of remuneration.
The whole area of local government conferences, for example, cries out for an overhaul. These have now become a thriving cottage industry, highly remunerative for their organisers but no less so in terms of expenses for their participants who, in this age of sophisticated communications, could just as easily engage in such events remotely via the laptops which are now provided for them as an aid to the fulfilment of their representative functions.
Now is undoubtedly the time for our local politicians, through their several representative organisations, to examine meaningful self-regulation in terms of their expenses and earnings – lest, in the inevitable descent of local government reforms, they suffer the memorial fate of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and have the good they do interred with their bones.

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