Saturday 1 October 2016

John Downing: Eternal optimist Kenny seems to know something nobody else does

Published 14/01/2013 | 05:00

IT IS not possible to fake the level of optimism and good cheer that Taoiseach Enda Kenny shows in his everyday work. Across his 36 years in public life, his sunny personality is among the characteristics acknowledged by both his supporters and his detractors. But both camps disagree on whether his remarkable optimism is a solid virtue or just a piece of silliness in refusing to face reality.

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Among other things, 2013 will tell us whether Mr Kenny is an optimistic realist or a man who has overly honed the skill of whistling past the graveyard.

In this column, and elsewhere, we have recently noted how this year will be a make or break one for Mr Kenny and his government colleagues on some crucial economic and political issues.

Yesterday's news agenda reinforced the further extent of the truth of that "make or break" assessment. Let's take a leaf from the old Leaving Cert questions and compare and contrast Mr Kenny's first major 2013 radio interview on RTE's 'This Week' with the findings of an interesting Millward Brown survey on the Irish public mood for the 'Sunday Independent'.

In a one-sentence summary, Mr Kenny is upbeat and optimistic to a level reminiscent of the literary character Pollyanna who always believed everything was for the best in the best possible world – even when the opposite was very apparent. But the Millward Brown poll suggests that Irish people do not share Mr Kenny's enthusiastic positivism and are sceptical, cautious and somewhat downbeat.

One thing appeared clear from Mr Kenny's interview: he showed himself supremely confident that an EU deal on the €3.1bn Anglo Irish Bank promissory note which falls due on March 31 is already in the bag.

He insisted there is no 'Plan B' to fudge the huge bill if an EU deal does not emerge, and in four separate statements of ascending emphasis he said there will be a deal for Ireland.

"I'm confident we will get a deal on the promissory notes by the end of March," he finally said.

There is no wriggle room there – if he does not get a deal he is quite simply stuffed.

The ordinary citizens' world view is extremely interesting and in marked contrast to the Government's upbeat take on life since the end of the Christmas holidays. Anybody who keeps their eyes and ears open will not have needed a national survey to tell them how fretful the public mood is.

Six out of 10 people fear for their ability to pay their bills next year; more than half the people fear their living standards will fall; one-third fear for their jobs; and one in seven fears they will lose their home. The property tax, which kicks in this summer, is seen as another negative impact on property prices.

The public's take on property market prospects generally is always a good barometer of the people's mood. Seven out of 10 think it is a good time to buy, but three quarters think it is still a terrible time to sell. Almost half the people think house prices still have a way to fall.

Doubtless influenced by the high attrition rate within Labour, there is no great public confidence that the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition will go full term to spring 2016. Only a third think it will run its full five years, while a quarter think it will founder.

Reading the survey results, there is more than a suggestion that Mr and Mrs Mainstream know the national economy will only pick up on the back of international economic revival. And they are aware that soundings from abroad suggest there are only limited grounds for optimism here.

Back with Mr Kenny's radio interview, his expressions of confidence in beleaguered Health Minister James Reilly were remarkable. Mr Kenny also seemed rather pleased that the EU Commission's private warnings about the need for radical public service cuts were now in the public domain.

Warnings from outside experts are always seen as helping push an unpopular case for cuts. But Mr Kenny also tried to strike a placatory note, signalling that cutbacks could not be aimed at gardai, teachers and nurses but more directed and focused on the safer target of administrators.

Turning to the tricky issue of abortion, Mr Kenny did not put a foot wrong. He said that what was planned was giving legal clarity to medical personnel who cared for mothers at risk – there was no question of so-called abortion on demand.

On this issue, Mr Kenny may have more genuine grounds for optimism on delivering a good result than on the economy. But again we must not prematurely confound the civility of last week's hearings at Leinster House with the idea that we are near a consensus.

Overall, the outcome of our compare-and-contrast between confident Kenny and the fretful public leads us to one conclusion: there is a marked gap between the two, and if there are no tangible indications of an economic pick-up soon, we may well see signs that the Irish public's tolerance for austerity cannot be taken for granted.

Irish Independent

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