Friday 21 October 2016

Kenny's hand on the tiller as Brexit rocks consumers

Poll shows voters may favour Micheal Martin to lead but Taoiseach has experience to negotiate a deal for Ireland, writes Jody Corcoran

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny: 'the man who will lead Ireland’s team in Europe to find the best possible outcome for the country after Brexit.' Picture Conor McCabe Photography
Enda Kenny: 'the man who will lead Ireland’s team in Europe to find the best possible outcome for the country after Brexit.' Picture Conor McCabe Photography

Ask anybody at the coalface of business, where commerce and consumers meet, and they will tell you that the last few months have been tricky.

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That is where 'confidence' can be detected, in the shops, the cafes, pubs and restaurants, or maybe one step short of that, on the main street, in the business houses whose job it is to encourage people to part with their hard-earned cash.

In recent months, there has been something of a slowdown, barely reflected in the official figures, the GDP growth rates, which still look healthy here, boosted as they are by foreign direct investment in the hi-tech world and pharmaceutical business.

But on the main street, creeping consumer caution is the watchword again: ask any shopkeeper or, better still, any marketing firm and they will tell you.

In the absence of other rational causes, at a time of economic growth and falling unemployment rates, they will sum up the cause in a single word - Brexit.

Now that the UK has voted to exit the EU, business here has reason to be more fearful, as our opinion poll confirms.

We frequently ask a relatively simple question designed to detect the mood of the country: this time next year, do you think that you personally will be better off, worse off or in the same situation as you are now?

Last November, for the first time since the economic and banking crisis, deep recession and austerity which followed, the number of people who felt they would be better off next year exceeded those who felt they would be worse off.

It was something of a Eureka moment: optimism as to the future, to be followed, as it is, by consumer confidence, was measured to have returned, relatively speaking, in our poll.

These were the official figures back then: 23pc believed they would be better off, 17pc felt they would be worse off and, in the middle, 43pc felt they would be just about the same.

Now fast forward seven months and the same question was asked. This time, 22pc felt they would be better off, 22pc felt they would be worse off and 48pc felt they would be the same.

The poll was conducted between June 18-30, slap bang in the middle of the business end of the Brexit campaign.

Read more: Poll excluisve: Public confidence in Independents crashes

But here is the most telling finding: pre-Brexit, that is before the UK actually voted to leave the EU, 27pc felt they would be better off next year, a four-point increase since November; but post-Brexit, that figure plummeted to 19pc, while the percentage who felt they would be the worse off and the same also increased commensurately.

This is the finding that will be of most concern to those on the high street, the business owners who bore the brunt of the recession and who are now struggling to their feet again, and, alongside those, all businesses and enterprises who depend either directly or at a remove on the magic that is consumer confidence.

It will also be of great concern to the Government, notably the Minister for Finance, and specifically the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, whose task it now is to manage Ireland's response to the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

In this regard, the public is not full of confidence either: 37pc believe the Government will last for a year; 35pc believe 18 months to two years and just 16pc believe three years or more.

But that is not the real issue of concern for Enda Kenny. The poll also finds that just 25pc think he should remain as Taoiseach, 56pc think he should resign, while 12pc don't know and 7pc say it depends.

Read more: How historic week of Brexit turmoil shaped our future

A little over half (54pc) of Fine Gael supporters think Mr Kenny should remain and just a third (32pc) of well-off, or what are referred to as AB voters, think so.

Enda Kenny was never the most popular politician in the country, so perhaps that finding should not come as too much of a surprise.

The most popular politician by far is the Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, who records a 43pc satisfaction rating, up 16 points since the last such poll was conducted in February, during the election.

That said, Enda Kenny is the man in situ, who has been elected Taoiseach for a second term after a relatively poor election for Fine Gael, and after 70 days of tortuous negotiation, at the end of which his fragile minority government was formed.

As such, he is the man who will lead Ireland's team in Europe to find the best possible outcome for the country after Brexit.

There is something to be said for that. He has experience around Europe, after all, not entirely a good experience, but he knows his way around the corridors of power in Brussels; as does Michael Noonan, and those teams of civil servants and diplomats, the permanent government, whose job it is now to deliver at this most difficult, not to mention unprecedented, of times.

Who do people want to succeed Enda Kenny? Well, 25pc say Leo Varadkar and 18pc say Simon Coveney, with the rest also-rans.

But ask yourself - do you really want either of these relatively young and inexperienced politicians with their hand on the tiller, or would you feel more secure with Enda Kenny, for all his perceived faults and failings.

Certainly, the poll detects an underlying desire for stability: Fine Gael (30pc) is up four points since the election and Fianna Fail (26pc) is up two points.

The Independents (14pc), who were all the rage before the election, are down 13 points, perhaps a reflection of those 70 days of negotiations and the fact that they put Enda Kenny back in power.

Sinn Fein (20pc) has also benefited, the party is up six points since the election - but then that's the story of Sinn Fein, widely popular until it really matters.

At this difficult time, it seems the people are turning to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail for stability, but would prefer Micheal Martin to be their leader.

They have Fine Gael, supported outside government by Fianna Fail, and Enda Kenny has the greater responsibility thrust upon him.

In short, it could be worse.

Read more: A national unity government can help us navigate uncharted waters

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