Why are they doing this?
That was the main question I asked and was asked in turn this week. Why are the government staking out terrible policy positions, burning scarce political capital on them and then collapsing with bad grace to a compromise endpoint leaving nobody happy?
A quick run down on what we’ve seen so far. The shortest Ministerial career in Irish history. Pay rises and pay cuts, both of which resulted in more pay for the government. And, even before the last issue was settled, the next hove into view.
On the 10th July, without bothering to let anyone know, the Minister for Social Protection had signed a Ministerial Order that amended legislation dating back to 2007. That was a law, which said that you could take a 2 week holiday and still get your jobseekers allowance.
Everything was now exactly the same except the word holiday was replaced by the phrase “holiday, in accordance with the Covid-19 General Travel Advisory in operation by the Department of Foreign Affairs.”
You could still get paid your jobseekers allowance and go on holiday. You just had to do it in accordance with a regularly amended and unpredictable press release which explicitly said it was only advice and it was up to your to use your judgement.
The Phantom Menace
Then on Sunday, the Other Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, was asked about this obvious inequity- where advice was given the force of law, but only for those unfortunate enough to be unable to work.
As a former Minister for Social Protection, the question of taking money away from recipients is one of the few issues Leo has shown a personal passion for. He built his leadership platform on a publicly-funded deligitimisation campaign (Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All). So, with this reddest of meats dangling, this lion of Fine Gael pounced. He delighted in saying a series of things that were not.
By the next morning, the machinery of government was struggling to remake the world in the image of the Other Taoiseach’s words. Now, because he had said people had to be available for work, that was added to an online list of requirements for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment. This made no sense, as there was no work and the whole macroeconomic point of the payment was to simply pause people while the virus raged and let them step back into their old jobs. Redundancy had even been suspended.
But then, once it was on the website, they had to keep defending it and so they put it in some legislation defining the PUP as well.
And they announced that the legislation allowing people to continue to get paid was just off now. Like a kitchen running out of soup, the rule of law was no longer available. Laws were described by the Minister as ‘flexibility’ and the Department no longer felt like following them. FLAC pointed out this was illegal.
Then people began to Talk to Joe.
Day 1. Then Day 2.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that three days of Liveline coverage can end a Minister. A week can topple a government.
On the third day, the Minister announced all the things she’d been saying before now were still right but that she wouldn’t be doing them anymore and would bring in some laws to fix it up and, you know, maybe people could go on holiday to the places that the Government’s own Green list said were fine to visit but now you had to check in your with your Parole, sorry, social welfare officer first.
Which will presumably mean that women travelling for abortions will now be legally obliged to notify their social welfare office first. That’ll make them feel warm fuzzies towards the Government.
Why did they do it?
No matter what way I turn this multifaceted gem, it seems to be the same answer. They did it because The Department wanted them to do it. And the Department wanted to do it because it is, institutionally, insane. They do what they want and they think that is what being in office means.
But, as Michéal Martin knows, if people decide you’re their enemy as they try to make the best of their life, they will consider themselves your enemy, frequently for your political life.
The Pandemic Unemployment Payment covers a range of society which the Department is unused to exerting its power over. It includes many people who have access to social power of their own. As the payments that have kept society cohesive in the face of a social and economic cataclysm start to ‘taper’ as the nights draw in, Ministers will look back on this week as the good old days.
But they may not even get that far if they don’t quickly realise that the officials in their departments see them as expendable. As the previous Minister for Social Protection can attest, no matter how willing a politician is to do what they’re told, their officials can’t save their seats.
All those new enemies, freshly minted this week, can wait.
And every new rake to the face will swell their numbers.