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The Government’s first 100 days

Despite enlisting a legion of special advisors and communications experts, the historic coalition Government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party has stuttered through its first 100 days in office with incoherence. However, is its disjointedness detracting from its substantive successes? eolas Magazine traces the tri-party administration from its innocuous beginnings to the present.

The ‘first 100 days’ is a concept firmly established in the political lexicon. Its modern origins lie in Franklin D Roosevelt’s prodigious foray into the US presidency when, amid the Great Depression, he signed 15 significant pieces of legislation within 100 days. Though such auspicious starts are not common, the ‘first 100 days’ became a litmus test for successive US administrations.

The symbolism of the phrase itself — ‘les cent jours’ — is borrowed from the time elapsed between Napoleon Bonaparte’s dramatic return to Paris from exile on Elba to his ultimate defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Eventually, the concept crossed the Atlantic, though the usefulness of such an arbitrary number as an indicator of likely success is questionable. If the first 100 days is a gauge of the effectiveness of this government, it will be an arduous term in office for each of the three coalition parties.

After finally ascending to the office of Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD made few friends with his selections for Fianna Fáil’s ministerial portfolios. Amusingly, several members of the parliamentary party vocally protested their exclusion, including deputies Willie O’Dea, Michael Moynihan and Dara Calleary.

Subsequent debacles relating to the allocation of aides-de-camp, ministerial cars and ministerial pay, as well as an à la carte approach to governance from some within the Green parliamentary party dogged the nascent administration.

Ministerial musical chairs

Then, in relatively quick succession, the Government had lost not one, but two agriculture ministers. After 17 days, Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen TD was sacked by An Taoiseach when it was disclosed that as well as receiving a drink driving ban while holding a provisional licence, a Garda Pulse record indicated that he had attempted to evade gardaí after performing a U-turn at the checkpoint. After refusing to face more questions in the Dáil, Cowen was unceremoniously stripped of the agriculture portfolio.

However, Cowen’s replacement as Agriculture Minister, the once-scorned deputy leader Darragh Calleary, was an equally ill-fated appointment. Calleary’s tenure was cut short following his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society’s annual dinner in Clifden, County Galway. The event in late August occurred one day after the Cabinet agreed to introduce stricter public health measures at a meeting attended by Calleary.

Having acted in violation of the new rules by attending the function with 80 others, Calleary’s position was untenable and he resigned after 37 days in office. The Golfgate incident also cost Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer his role as Seanad Leas-Cathaoirleach and, after six days of mounting scrutiny, toppled Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan MEP from his position as EU Trade Commissioner. Mairéad McGuinness subsequently confirmed as Ireland’s new EU Commissioner, although Ireland had lost the highly inflential portfolio of trade. Meanwhile, Supreme Court judge and former Attorney General Séamus Woulfe narrowly avoided serious censure.

Overnight, the Golfgate episode provoked public fury. The political capital that had been afforded to the caretaker regime in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent public health measures had been gratuitously squandered by those perceived to be in positions of power. A carefully cultivated sense of national solidarity that had existed since the early days of the pandemic evaporated ad infinitum, seriously undermining the Government’s authority.

Intra-government wrangling

Having returned to government for a third consecutive term, Fine Gael’s savvy has come to dominate the coalition dynamic, with the party confidently imprinting its identity as required. Likewise, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar TD has cast a long shadow from under which the Taoiseach has struggled to emerge.

Since assuming their new ministerial portfolios, the Tánaiste and the Further and Higher Education Minister, Simon Harris TD have appeared reluctant to relinquish their personas as Taoiseach and Health Minister respectfully. This has led to some blurring of lines as to who wears which clothes within government.

While Harris has been known to stray into his previous remit on several occasions, delivering public health messages to his 200,000 Twitter followers, Varadkar in particular has been adept at appearing to be both in government and outside government at once. On several occasions, he has utilised social media to cut his successor off at the knees and has in no small part helped to undermine the coherence of the Government’s messaging.

Green Party

Meanwhile, having steadied itself following the pre-summer recess revolt, the Green Party exhibited a more ruthless discipline in government, repeatedly voting with its coalition partners and against its own interest in the Dáil. So far, the Greens have opposed proposed legislation for the introduction of a living wage, the extension of maternity leave, mandatory sick pay, measures to alleviate child poverty and a ban on evictions.

Indeed, though literally caught napping during a Dáil vote on a workers’ rights motion in the Convention Centre, Eamon Ryan TD still secured a narrow leadership victory having been challenged by colleague Catherine Martin TD in the Green Party leadership race.

Allied with government formation negotiations and experiences in the early days of this government this has sowed deep division within the party. Shortly after the conclusion of the leadership contest (and one month following government formation), the Just Transition Greens, a “Green-left affiliate group of the Green Party”, was formed to represent “the pillars of social justice, democracy and peace effectively within the party and outside of it”. The potential for more high-profile defections is real.

Overpromising and underdelivering

Incoming governments are often predisposed to over-promise and under-deliver within the first 100 days. As erstwhile Governor of New York Mario Cuomo suggested, politicians often campaign in poetry and govern in prose. While riddled with ambiguity, a lack of timescales and an absence of costing, the Programme for Government contains several ambitious targets for the Government’s first months. In the context of the pandemic, many of these are already waylaid.

Housing

Having dominated General Election 2020, affordable housing represented a major component of the new administration’s Programme for Government. However, it appears unlikely that the initial unit construction target for 2020 will be met. Covid-19 has adversely affected the construction sector and only 725 social housing units were constructed in the first six months of 2020. With a total 1,467 social housing units built, acquired or leased in the first half of the year, the Government’s target of building 7,736 in 2020 is almost certainly impossible. Meanwhile the pledge to publish an Affordable Housing Purchase Scheme has failed to materialise.

Speaking in the Dáil in July, Housing Minister O’Brien stated: “I intend to announce the details of the new scheme in September… I will confirm arrangements under which discounted homes will be sold to eligible purchasers by local authorities.”

While the affordable housing scheme is yet to materialise, speaking at a post-Budget 2021 briefing in October, the Minister made assurances that legislation would come before the Dáil within weeks.

Upon assuming the housing portfolio, and amid much Opposition criticism, O’Brien swiftly replaced the blanket ban on evictions and rent increases with more targeted legislation. The Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 means that tenant protections are applied only to those who can prove that their income has been negatively impacted by Covid-19.

Health

The health priorities contained within the Programme for Government are a reiteration of the commitment to a single-tier universal healthcare system as per Sláintecare. Many elements of this ambition have been placed on the backburner while the HSE attempts to mitigate a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Likewise, while non-Covid-19 treatments were already subject to significant backlog, the pandemic has exacerbated the situation.

In August, during an interview with Virgin Media News’ Zara King, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly TD bizarrely equated the risk of returning to school during the pandemic as being akin to jumping on a trampoline.

Several weeks later, in September, the entire Cabinet was instructed to self-isolate and the Dáil was suspended as Minister Donnelly was tested for a suspected case of Covid-19. These developments came on the same day as the Government launched its Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19 document. Confusion reigned as Dublin was placed somewhere between levels two and three within the plan’s prescriptive five-tier restrictive measures. While Donnelly’s test quickly returned negative, the disruption had detonated the Government’s efforts to reinject any sense of coherence into its communications.

However, while the Government encountered significant criticism for its communication of the plan, it has thus far remained resolutely committed to its five tiers of restrictive measures in response to Covid-19.

Simultaneously, the HSE’s €600 million Winter Plan for 2020/2021 was approved by the Department of Health and published in September for the current period until April 2021. The health service has pledged to introduce an additional 251 acute hospital beds in 2020 and a further 232 in early 2021, alongside 17 new critical beds and 89 sub-acute beds. At the time of the announcement, there were 282 ICU beds in the system, up from 225 at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. To implement the objectives of the plan, 10,260 extra staff will be required.

Welcoming the publication of the plan, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly asserted: “This Winter is expected to be particularly challenging due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. The Government’s determination to meet this challenge is demonstrated by our decision to invest an additional €600 million in health services this winter.”

Climate action

All three government parties promised that a Climate Action Bill would be introduced to the Dáil. Subsequently, Cabinet has approved the general scheme or draft heads of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020. The Bill will legislate for Ireland’s ambition of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Upon publishing the draft text of the Bill, Environment Minister Eamon Ryan maintained: “The Climate Action Bill is a radical departure for Ireland and one that puts our country on a new course. It creates a new target to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, which will change our economy and society at every level.”

However, currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny before the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee, the text of the Bill has been widely criticised for its perceived vagueness, lack of public participation and absence of sanctions for failure to meet carbon budgets.

Education

At a time when teachers, parents and students required clarity, newly anointed Education Minister Norma Foley, a first time TD, did not emerge well from an early July interview with the Sunday Independent. Under the headline “‘Flat out busy’ Foley hasn’t time for tricky questions”, Hugh O’Connell wrote: “Having provided little clarity on a range of issues, the interview is halted after less than 25 minutes with Foley apologising. ‘It just seems that there is so much happening these days. It is fairly flat out busy.’”

With schools closed from 12 March 2020 and the Leaving Cert postponed before being cancelled entirely, 61,000 students were assessed through a calculated grades system. Teachers were required to “to draw on existing records and available evidence, to provide a fair, reasonable and carefully considered judgment of the most likely percentage mark that each student would have achieved”. School leavers subsequently accessed their Leaving Cert grades online, without serious error.

Yet, weeks after students received their results and enrolled on third-level courses, a fundamental flaw in the algorithm’s code was discovered. When questioned in the Dáil by Labour leader Alan Kelly TD, An Taoiseach revealed that the Department of Education had identified a problem. It emerged that a programming error in the calculated grades system had resulted in 6,500 students receiving the wrong Leaving Certificate grades. Additional places must now be found at third-level institutions. Exacerbating the problem was Foley’s delay in informing her Cabinet colleagues.

That being said, in late August and early September, under the stewardship of Minister Foley, the State’s 4,000 primary and post-primary schools did successfully reopen. Through Reopening Our Schools: The Roadmap for the Full Return to School, the Department of Education provided a financial package of €377 million to support the safe and sustainable reopening of schools for one million students and 100,000 staff.

Substantive successes

Overall, amid the communications chaos, the Government has also landed some substantive victories. Speaking with eolas Magazine in August, the Taoiseach listed the creation of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the July Jobs Stimulus, the Roadmap for Reopening Schools, the European Summit and the first North South Ministerial Council meeting in over three years as evidence for the coalition’s early successes.

“We can manage communications better; we can do all of that. I take that point,” he conceded, adding: “But it was a very frenetic month. There was a real proactivity. We had lots of Cabinet subcommittees. It stretched people in the system to the outer limits. From morning to night, we were at it. A lot of good work was done.”

In total, the tri-party administration enacted 13 bills within its initial 100 days. In chronological order, these are:

  • the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Act 2020;
  • the National Oil Reserves Agency (Amendment) and Provision of Central Treasury Services Act 2020;
  • the Health (General Practitioner Service and Alteration of Criteria for Eligibility) Act 2020;
  • the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Act 2020;
  • the Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Act 2020;
  • the Ministers and Secretaries and Ministerial, Parliamentary, Judicial and Court Offices (Amendment) Act 2020;
  • the Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Act 2020;
  • the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Act 2020;
  • the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020;
  • the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020;
  • the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) (No. 2) Act 2020;
  • the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020; and
  • the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020.

July Stimulus

Likewise, the July Jobs Stimulus Package heralded “a €7.4 billion package of 50 measures designed to stimulate a jobs-led recovery and build economic confidence while continuing to manage the impact of Covid-19”.

Headline measures included the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme which succeeded by the Employment Wage Support Scheme and will run until April 2021 and an extension of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) to the same date. The €4 billion of direct spending incorporates €1 billion of tax measures, including, a temporary reduction in the standard rate of VAT from 23 per cent to 21 per cent (at a cost of €440 million), alongside a €2 billion Covid-19 Credit Guarantee Scheme.

Conclusion

A more challenging context for a new government is hard to imagine. Covid-19 has turned every facet of society inside out. Meanwhile, the possibility of a no-deal Brexit hovers ominously and the window of opportunity for impactful climate action narrows.

While scoring several immediate wins, the first 100 days of this Government have been a whirlwind of inconsistency and incoherence. Individual ministers from across the three government parties are operating in distinct silos. As a result, communication is often garbled at a time when citizens require a unity of purpose.

If it cannot inject stability into its messaging, any substantive achievements will continue to be lost in the noise.

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