Most people seem pretty depressed about this new Dail. But there’s cause for optimism, if you look a little closer. Let’s get the two big concerns out of the way.
First, it’s unstable. Fianna Fail will only ‘facilitate’ Fine Gael in government if they have the support of at least 58 TDs. Right now they have 59, comprising 50 Fine Gael TDs and nine Independents. So all it takes for the whole thing to fall over is two TDs to withdraw their support. Independents are not bound by party discipline, and Fine Gael kicked out a lot more than two TDs in the last Dail.
Second, it’s arguably the most right wing government Ireland’s ever seen. Based on the past five years, this is bad news. Not just in the obvious areas like public services and disadvantaged communities, but also for the business community, that relies heavily on investment in areas like education and infrastructure. Fine Gael’s general economic approach is trickle-down, driven by a belief that a rising tide floats all boats. Alas, decades of evidence shows, as Nobel economist Jodeph Stiglitz observed, that the rising tide appears to float only the large yachts.
So why the optimism? Because the minority nature of the government, and Fianna Fail’s fairly loose support, means the Dail has, for the first time, a meaningful role to play in setting policy and driving legislation. It’s already happening. A cross-party committee on Dail reform is making strong progress and will shortly be proposing changed that have been restricted for decades. Yes, Dail reform is incredibly dull, but it’s needed for the political system to get better at the things that actually matter.
Things like healthcare. We have one of the most expensive healthcare systems on earth. We have highly trained clinicians. And yet we’re ranked close to the bottom in the developed world on quality of healthcare. There are lots of reasons for this – too much work in hospitals rather than in primary care settings, not enough freedom for GPs and practice nurses, under-investment in professional development, poor procurement, a culture of mistrust between clinicians and management, and so on.
But the root of all these individual issues is a failure of vision. We don’t have one of the best healthcare systems on earth because we can’t agree on what successful healthcare looks like. How should it be funded? How should the training path for doctors be structured? Should we have a two-tier system? Should people be told how hospitals perform relative to each other? What care should be provided in the home, in the GP surgery, in the primary care centre and in hospital? And given that, how many of each of these do we need? And where should they be?
This failure of vision is not down to clinicians or HSE staff. The failure is political – it belongs to the Dail, and it needs to be addressed. We need agreement on what success in healthcare looks like. We need a long-term plan that gets us there, including how to fund it.
So a few weeks back the Social Democrats worked with Fianna Fail, Labour, Sinn Fein, the Greens and Independents to agree a motion establishing a Dail committee on the future of healthcare – both the funding and the transition to a modern, community-based model. About 90 TDs signed up, which means the Dail could pass the motion, regardless of what the government wanted. In fairness, Fine Gael have also signed up, so the hope is that the motion will pass unanimously, and that we can start a genuine, cross-party effort to plan for the long term in health.
This wouldn’t have happened in the last Dail, or in previous ones. And it’s happening in other areas too, like mortgage and housing. In parliamentary democracy, parliament is meant to be an equal force to the executive branch of government (Cabinet). This allows for more ideas, wider representation and an important balancing of powers. By contrast, Ireland is widely viewed as having the weakest parliament and most dominant cabinet in the developed world. And we’ve all lived through the consequences.
So why the optimism? Because for now, parliament has a voice. It won’t all go well, and it may well collapse in a fit of righteous indignation from some quarter or other. But in the meantime, we’ve an opportunity to see if a more powerful Dail can indeed inject much-needed challenge and new ideas to areas we seem to be stuck, like healthcare, housing and support for small businesses. Time will tell.