Irish political update – The roadmap to normality?

It is International Workers’ Day – a day to celebrate the working class and workers all over the world, and in Ireland, we await one of the most anticipated announcements from Government to date – whether we will be returning to work soon or continuing with the lockdown that is currently in place. 

The never-ending lockdown 

Some of us expected we would be heading back to work after the May Bank Holiday weekend, or even allowed some give in the bounds of this pandemic which would permit us to see our families and loved ones. We were not foolish to believe such a thing to be true, instead, we believed the narrative set by our political leaders that restrictions may be lifted if we comply with the set of public health guidelines recommended by the National Public Health Emergency Team and legislated for by the Oireachtas.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has listed five criteria that will be used to decide whether restrictions are lifted in the future: the progress of the disease, healthcare capacity and resilience, testing and contact tracing capacity, ability to shield at risk groups, and risk of secondary morbidity.  He also told the Dáil that the lifting of restrictions will be gradual over a period of months.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald questioned Leo Varadkar yesterday on the target of a capacity to carry out 100,000 tests per week, saying that these tests should be real tests with real results instead of aspirations. It is clear all on the political spectrum want to get the economy moving again but the direction each wants to take differs slightly with some calling for an ease to the restrictions and some being more firm on restrictions remaining as they are. There is even a split between Varadkar’s own Cabinet. 

A roadmap

Non-essential businesses have been closed since 27th March with many having to lay off staff or avail of Government supports such as the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme. These supports, along with the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment are not sustainable in the long-term and both Government and the businesses themselves will be hoping for the green light to return to work.

Garden centres and construction sites are already preparing to open from next week if they are given the go-ahead later this evening, but there has been no solid indication that this will be the case. Many prospective homeowners are also eager for construction work on their houses to resume in order for mortgages to remain intact.

Yesterday’s Dáil session saw questions posed from the Social democrats and Solidarity-People Before Profit regarding the non-compliance of some sectors and if there are any non-compliance enforcement measures in operation, as reports have come from workers that they have returned to work in environments not fit for a Covid-19 pandemic.

With such a myriad of businesses with varying services on offer across the country, it will be difficult to decipher what businesses can and cannot open safely, but any new restrictions will need to be communicated clearly in order for all to comply and put the necessary preparations and precautions in place. It would be unfair on the business community to leave them in a similarly unclear scenario as they were left four weeks ago when many ceased operations completely to later find out they could continue trading online.

It would be reasonable to assume business-to-business (B2B) settings will be permitted to reopen first, long before business-to-consumer (B2C) as there is an element of control that can be placed upon B2B businesses that cannot be replicated to the same level among B2C businesses.

Certain services that require close physical contact such as hair and beauty salons, gyms, changing facilities, and physiotherapists among many others will face significant challenges reopening. The likelihood of them resuming to how they were pre-pandemic is slim and they may need to introduce additional safety measures such as disposable uniforms or washing equipment after each customer. The cost of these measures may make opening unfeasible until we move far closer to the old normal rather than accept a new normal.

The Government will need to effectively communicate how these services can resume their services safely, and where it is not possible to return to business as usual, outline what financial supports will be on offer to those who struggle to regain footfall or those who must adapt entire new ways of operating.

The letter to the Greens – reading between the lines

High hopes were held while we awaited Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s response to the Green Party’s 17-page letter but it may have been foolish to think that the two centre-right parties were ever going to so quickly concede to the climate measures asked for by Eamon Ryan’s party.

The letter repeatedly refers to how all three parties can “tease out” the asks through talks, and “consider” or “discuss further” how things can be done together – lacking in any solid commitments.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have agreed to six of the commitments, but those agreed to are far less ambitious and radical than those rejected. The response to housing signified no major desire to change housing policy, with the two parties still advocating for the building and sale of private houses on public land – a policy criticised by many of the smaller parties.

At first glance, the response may seem promising and as if  Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are serious about implementing the Green Party’s policies but with further assessment, most of their answers are followed with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ which surely sends a hazardous message to the more radical Green Party members. On the other hand, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could argue that further discussions are required before committing to such ambitious climate measures as implementing such targets now may not be the most fiscally responsible approach in dealing with the aftermath of Covid-19. Certain sectors may be in dire need of bailing out if we are to ever return to a financially sound position and this may mean pushing green investment further down the line.

It is clear the response aims to appease the Green Party and bring them into formal talks but it may not have so easily achieved that, based on the initial responses from some prominent Green Party members. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael mention how their aim is to ensure that they do not make climate change a divisive issue, but climate change is not marmite – it is not for you to like or dislike. According to many Green Party TDs, most notably Catherine Martin, Neasa Hourigan and Roderic O’ Gorman, 7% is the absolute minimum that must be achieved – it is a figure based on science, based on realism and it is not up for negotiation. Party TDs have also criticised Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for not having any reduction target for carbon emissions.

Furthermore, on the back of this document, University College Cork’s MaREI Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine conducted new research that states that the Green Party’s red-line issue of an annual 7% reduction in carbon emissions could cost the State €40 billion. The research indicates that the reduction would half overall emissions 10 years’ time but would be hugely ambitious and difficult to achieve. The Centre have said the demands would require consideration of the size of Ireland’s national herd, the use of nuclear energy and agricultural practices. The Green Party has said this percentage is achievable, but this research could potentially put pressure on the Green Party to loosen their terms and further encourage Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael not to accept them outright. 

What is plan B?

Both Labour and the Social Democrats are awaiting replies from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but neither party are as attractive to Michéal Martin and Leo Varadkar as the Green Party. If Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not willing to accept the policies required to get the Greens on board, it would be an extremely unusual state of affairs if they were to then turn to Labour and the Social Democrats to begin engagement on policies that are much further from their own. Labour have already stated the policies dear to their heart, which include increased taxation on wealth and assets, public ownership of broadband, and other contrasts in areas of housing, education and social and employee protection.

Other options include Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael making a final decision if they could deal with just the Regional Independents, who have agreed to come on board, but which would just barely bring them over the line. At all times, this was mooted as the least favoured option.

Finally, if a consensus cannot be reached between enough parties to build a majority, we could see a return to the ballot boxes in the latter half of the year (if public health guidelines allow for such an event). This would mean Leo Varadkar would continue in his caretaker capacity for a specified amount of time before the public cast their votes for the second time in a year. This would presumably result in a much more strategic approach by Sinn Féin in their candidate selection allowing them to add to the 37 seats they now hold. 

Looking ahead

Later today, the Government will announce its plan to reinvigorate the economy and return the country to work. Although it is not likely, any relaxation in the restrictions should be taken with caution as we remember what happened in Germany where restrictions had to be reintroduced after a rise in cases once they had been lifted.

Over the course of the weekend, we expect to hear the Green Party’s deliberation on whether Eamon Ryan will enter formal talks with Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar.

Next week will either see the beginning of government formation talks or Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael very much back to the drawing board. 

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