Republic gets ready to assume crash position
As the Republic's coalition government teeters on the brink, Henry McDonald argues that the political fall-out will also affect the parties in Northern Ireland
Sitting inside the John McMichael Centre in Belfast's Sandy Row yesterday morning, the de facto leader of the Ulster Defence Association made a telling quip about the fiscal and political crisis across the border. Before talking to me about matters within loyalism, Jackie Mc Donald inquired if I was heading back to Dublin this week. When I replied yes, he interjected: "Well, will you tell the people down there that Britain can't have them back!"
Although he expressed genuine concern for those in the Republic who will bear the brunt of the brutal cost-cutting, tax rises and dramatic drop in living standards McDonald's point was well made.
The days of Celtic Tiger man threatening to extend his reach across the border and through sheer force of business rather than arms accelerate the process towards unity are over. The Republic will be lucky to reach 2016 with its deficit driven to the EU- required figure of 3.5% of GDP let alone be any closer to reunification. The south is broke and on its knees with a begging bowl to its EU partners, including the UK which has pledged £7bn in a "contingency loan".
Not since the Arms Trial of 1970 and the start of the Troubles has the Republic faced such an existential threat. Today its Government is tottering on the brink of collapse while the international speculators and global market gamblers circle around the Irish body-politic like vultures.
The incredible events of the last seven days have major implications for a number of political and social forces across this island.
For Fianna Fail, the humiliating spectacle of having to back-track and beg the EU and IMF for help is a disaster. Brian Cowen's political career is nearing endgame and will, in all likelihood, if the coalition in Dublin can force through a Budget on December 7. Like so much going on at present, this will have a knock-on effect on nationalist politics in the north.
Once upon a time not very long ago, strong majorities of SDLP candidates in straw polls favoured a merger with the Soldiers of Destiny.
Not only does the current SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie oppose fusion with FF, but who now in their right minds would want to merge with a party that is suffering a record drop in support south of the border to just 17%?
Fianna Fail's difficulties should also be Sinn Fein's opportunity although this should not be exaggerated. Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Fein candidate in Donegal South West by-election should take Jim McDaid's former seat this Thursday. Gerry Adams is favourite to retain the party's seat in Louth and his presence will undoubtedly give Sinn Fein a publicity boost in the forthcoming general election.
But unless all the opinion polls are wrong, then the next Irish Government to take power will be a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Fine Gael is opposed to bringing Sinn Fein into government with them. Labour too is wary about Sinn Fein and look to what happened to the SDLP as a warning. As one former Democratic Left member, now a Labour back room boy, told me yesterday evening: "Why would we help Sinn Fein out given that their aim is to displace us? We are not going to make the same mistake the SDLP made."
Once in power, however, Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny will have to deal with the same difficulties Brian Cowen and company have so spectacularly failed to manage over the last week. This poses particular problems for Labour because it draws its support from a large segment of the population who would suffer most from cost-cutting budgets - the public sector workforce. If Labour resist those cuts, will this panic the international markets who will believe Ireland doesn't have the will or the way to reduce its huge deficit?
If the party embraces economic austerity alongside Fine Gael (the latter which has not run away from these problems in the past) will this trigger an internal war with the unions similar to the 1979 Winter of Discontent that destroyed Jim Callaghan's Government and brought Margaret Thatcher to power?
Finally, there are old friends, the Irish-owned banks - two of which operate here in Northern Ireland. The bulk of the multi-billion bailout will in turn be drawn down to bail out them. Already loathed by people on both sides of the border, the sight of billions in foreign aid being pumped into the very institutions that caused this crisis will boil blood north and south.
At least in those circumstances our politicians in Stormont could move against the Irish-owned banks up here. Perhaps with legislation copying the re-possession amnesty in the Republic where mortgage holders are allowed to default on three monthly payments to those banks that received so much public largesse.
Now is the time for our politicians to do something useful, popular and realisable. Use this crisis to make the banks behave better given that it is they whom the Irish people will blame the most for seven days of chaos and national humiliation.