Joan Burton’s Second Law of Inverse Stability

Hadn’t posted on here in a few weeks – catching up on missed items today. This is the most current of the three blogs posted today. It was originally intended for today’s Evening Herald


As far as I am aware the only eponymous Irish Rule of Politics was named for its creator, the much missed political journalist Gerald Barry.

The rule roughly states that “every leader of the opposition will, be at some point, be hailed as the worst ever leader of the opposition.”  Its strength lies not just in its inherent truth; but also to the fact that it applies in almost every jurisdiction.

Look at poor Ed Miliband. How he manages to drag himself into Parliament after reading reports of backbench murmuring and discontent in that morning’s papers is beyond me.

Yet he does, thus highlighting the fundamental truth that scorn and opprobrium goes with the job of being opposition leader. Maybe Enda Kenny could give Ed some pointers on this

But I digress. While the US has numerous rules and laws of politics, Gerald Barry’s is the only one I can think of in the Irish context, or at least it was until now.

Over the weekend the Social affairs Minister, Joan Burton reminded us that there is a second immutable rule of Irish politics, even if it hasn’t had a name up to now.

This Second law states that “large government majorities can lead to disaster and indiscipline”. It so might have been drafted with Minister Burton’s tactics in mind that it probably should be named for her: The Burton Second Law of Inverse Stability.

It’s most notable occurrence to date was during the 1977 – 1981 Fianna Fail majority Government. In 1997 Jack Lynch returned Fianna Fail to office with a twenty seat majority.

Two years later a variety of backbench insurrections on issues from the Farmer’s Levy to British Army border flyovers had so weakened and undermined his leadership that he lost two by-elections in his own back yard and would see his leadership ended by December of 1979.

While at first sight it would appear that big majorities would leave a government comfortably placed to win Dáil votes, the counter intuitive truth is otherwise.

Such big majorities allow backbenchers the scope to flex their muscles and run risks they would not dare try if they thought their actions might herald an election and the loss of their own seat.

Enter Minister Joan Burton. Almost since her appointment to government she has erred on the side of expressing her own strongly views rather than merely defer to the broader FG/Lab consensus.

She has some entitlement to feel aggrieved. She did the heavy lifting as the party’s Finance spokesperson in opposition. She carved out a separate position for the Labour party on the economy, differentiating itself from Fine Gael.

She played a vital part in securing the Labour swing, only to find herself having to standby while Labour effectively disavowed her policies, not in favour of Fine Gael’s but, in favour of those of the outgoing Government.

A hard pill to swallow, made harder by seeing front bench colleagues leap frog her into Cabinet.

It would seem her response has been to work the Labour back benches and strive to speak more for them than for her FG colleagues. A good strategy for positioning yourself within the party: not a great one when it comes to conveying the impression of strong and cohesive government.

While her comments on a second bailout may not send the markets into a spin or (regrettably) make President Sarkozy’s political headaches any worse, it will not endear her to her party leader or Cabinet colleagues.

It also sends a signal to others to feel free to do the same. Clearly, with three of them jettisoning the Labour Whip so far, labour backbenchers do not need much encouragement, but for how much longer can or will Fine Gael be prepared to tolerate this?

Which brings me back to the issue of rules and laws. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states: “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. It is just as true in politics.

While they have been disciplined up to now, I suspect it won’t be too long until we see some Fine Gaelers feeling the same need to unburden themselves and say their piece.

Maybe we will then have our third law of politics: Varadkar’s Third Law of Political Momentum?

Twitter @dsmooney

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