Framework document – fact or fiction?

The joint FF/FG Framework document has had a bad press. Respected commentators like Cliff Taylor and Dan O’Brien have been scathing. They criticised it for “being light on detail and heavy on aspiration” (I Times) and not acknowledging “some very tough choices may be facing a new administration within weeks” (Indo).

Such criticism would be entirely valid if this was a draft Programme for Government or a National Economic Plan. Truth is, it is neither. It is a political document. Written for a political audience – the parliamentary parties of the Greens, the Soc Dems and Labour.

If you think about it, you could not write a costed Programme for Government or an Economic Plan in the current climate. What assumption do you make about how long Covid-19 will be with us? When will we have a vaccine? When will large parts of the economy open up? I don’t know. Cliff and Dan don’t know. Leo, Micháel, Paschal and Michael don’t know.

What they do know is that Ireland can borrow -not limitless borrowing- at very cheap rates. And many similar sized EU countries are in exactly the same boat – so EU solidarity will be strong. Neither were present in the last recession. So, an undertaking not to resort to austerity measures (large cuts in spending) is not entirely unreasonable. And the focus on (using borrowing to) get people back to work has the benefit of following a strategy that worked in 2011-2015.

In reality, we have had a broad political consensus on the steps taken so far. That consensus will have to hold as we go through the process of reopening the country while managing public health and easing back on supports as economic and social activity resumes.

But, sooner or later, we need a Government. The absence of a properly constituted Seanad means we cannot pass any new laws…even if they were needed to save lives. And ideally, we need a stable Government that can make decisions in the knowledge that they will have 4 to 5 years to see those decisions bear fruit.

The Framework document is the first step. It’s how you eat an elephant…one bite at a time.

It sets out for the smaller parties where FF and FG are prepared to go once the public health crisis has been addressed and as the economy recovers. The frontpage states that the document is to facilitate negotiations with other parties on a plan to recover, rebuild and renew Ireland after the COVID-19 Emergency”.

Many of the “aspirations” can be found in either parties election manifesto. Expanding universal access with a focus in the first instance on children and and women’s health (FG). A greater role for the state in house building (FF).

Although it does suggest a greater role for the state in some areas, it does not suggest that private healthcare will remain nationalised. Or that childcare will be nationalised. Or that rent freezes will last longer than Covid 19.

Housing and health were dominant issues in the election. Ironically, Covid-19 looks like it will dramatically increase the supply of accommodation allowing a massive cut in the numbers in emergency accommodation. It may provide a safety net for people in danger of becoming homeless. It may also cause a fall in rents. The health ambitions in the document are very closely aligned to Sláintecare to which all parties have already signed up.

Of course, the big question is – will the Framework document achieve its most tangible ambition -to get smaller parties into Government negotiations. At best that looks like a 50:50 chance.

They are between a rock and a hard place. The history of smaller parties in Irish coalition Governments is not good. The certainty that you will be attacked remorselessly by politicians (specifically Sinn Fein) with whom you have voted, marched and advocated for years must be terrifying.

Arguably the only more terrifying prospect must be facing another General Election in the autumn of 2020.

The Framework document could form the basis of an FF/FG platform in such an election. Its ambitions probably reflect where the centrist (left and right) leanings of the majority of the Irish people lie. FF and FG would frame that election on the basis of “who stood up and was prepared to govern” and who ran away when the country needed a government. The risk for smaller parties is that the election gets polarised between FF/FG on one side and Sinn Fein on the other. With Sinn Fein running more candidates, the smaller parties and independents would not have their transfers to get elected.

In years to come this document, far from being vilified, may be lauded as the day Irish politics finally realigned, away from fake differences, into reflecting the real divide. A pragmatic centrist approach to governing or one based on a more statist/socialist model.

Only time will tell.