John Downing: Taoiseach is facing daunting to-do list for the year that will define his legacy
Published 31/12/2012 | 17:00
BY THIS time next year, we will have the measure of Enda Kenny's performance as Taoiseach. The coming 12 months will define his term of office and make or break his reputation in the top job.
The Enda Kenny 2013 to-do list is pretty hefty: secure long-promised EU debt concessions; organise an exit from the EU-IMF bailout; sort out the 30-year-old abortion issue without breaking up his coalition or splitting his own party; make real headway on public service cost savings via a revisited Croke Park deal; implement a new property tax and prepare for water charges.
Amid all that, the Taoiseach must, from midnight tonight, steer Ireland's seventh EU presidency until June 30, 2013. Issues to be resolved include brokering a new €1 trillion EU budget plan for 2014-2020, advancing an EU banking union, and helping improve EU-British relations.
And, if he has any energy left over, Mr Kenny should keep an eye on Fine Gael headquarters down the street from Government Buildings, where preparations for the June 2014 local and European elections will gather pace. That will be the real work for all the political parties in 2013 – but it will remain largely out of public view until well into the following year.
The EU debt concessions and bailout exit are interlinked, and are in turn enmeshed with Ireland's future economic prospects, which all depend heavily on a return to economic growth. On this, the signs so far are not overly-encouraging.
It is a good bet that Ireland will get concessions on the €3.1bn Anglo Irish Bank promissory note, allowing it to be kicked into the long-term future rather than written off. Bigger concessions on the longer-term bank debt load – though heavily featured in government 2011 elections promises – remain hugely problematic.
Any big debt breakthrough before German national elections late next September is most unlikely. The year closed with an IMF warning about poor growth outlook. It is clear that Ireland beyond the bailout will still need outside financial support and accompanying supervision in some form in a planned return to borrowing on international money markets late next year.
It will not be lost on Mr Kenny that more people took to the streets over abortion than because one-in-seven Irish workers is now on the dole. But that is politics.
Mr Kenny has promised legislation to end the 20-year gap on this issue since the notorious X case in 1992, and Dail hearings begin within the next 10 days.
The real crux will turn around the risk to a mother's life from suicide, but there are many real tensions within Fine Gael and between FG and Labour. It is a potentially explosive issue which will require micro-management of personnel and politics.
The reality of a property tax will dawn in mid-2013 and most likely much of the fallout will be to Environment Minister Phil Hogan, who is also preparing for water charges. This and other money matters will again put the spotlight on the contribution of public service workers who have been asked to deliver another €1bn in savings by 2015. In the circumstances, private sector workers and the unemployed might well take a more militant and vocal stance.
Expect a Cabinet reshuffle later on in the year. For people who like their politics, that is always a source of diversion as we speculate on who is on the way up and whose career has passed its peak. All eyes will be on the ill-starred Health Minister Dr James Reilly and ambitious 'young Turks' such as Simon Coveney, Lucinda Creighton and Brian Hayes – the latter trio all anti-Kenny people in the botched June 2010 heave.
Mr Kenny will hold off on the reshuffle until the EU Presidency ends on June 30. It would be tempting to follow Bertie Ahern's example in 2004 when he signalled the re-jig in early summer and waited until the Dail's return in September to make the announcements, giving him a summer of peace.
On the half-way point of his potential government term, that re-shuffle will be an important strategic junction for Mr Kenny as he needs to freshen up his team ahead of local council and European Parliament elections.
Big things are expected of Taoisigh in times of crisis. The bar is now set so high for Enda Kenny that it is comparable to the stark challenges which faced WT Cosgrave on the State's foundation in 1922 and Eamon de Valera at the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
A good smattering of luck helped Enda Kenny determinedly batter his way to overcoming 10 years of doubt and disdain to become Taoiseach. Much will now depend on whether the Taoiseach is still rated 'a lucky general' by the close of December 2013.
For Enda Kenny, as for all the rest of us, much of what decides our fate in 2013 rests with international economic growth prospects that might be hopeful in the US and less so across the EU. That, as we know, is a matter beyond our control.