Wednesday 22 October 2014

Taoiseach now facing some tough challenges following a good 2012

Published 27/12/2012 | 17:00

THE Taoiseach kicked off 2012 with a medium-sized gaffe. It was January 26, at the world's 'poshest think-in', in that poshest of places, Davos in Switzerland. Each January this event lugs in high-flying people from across the globe, some of whom have a world-class welcome for themselves.

At a low-key question-and-answer session, Enda Kenny in essence described Ireland's boom and bust experience as driven by people going mad borrowing in a system that spawned greed. No harm there; many people would agree.

But the Taoiseach's problem was that it contrasted sharply with what he had said just eight weeks earlier, on Sunday December 4, 2011, when he delivered a televised pre-Budget address to the nation.

"Let me say to this to you. You are not responsible for the crisis," the Taoiseach said.

There followed some days of verbal hair-splitting about 'context', and then things moved on. It was another example of the Taoiseach's intermittent capacity to take his eye off the ball.

Another example came much later in the year when he was filmed devoting all his attention to his new mobile phone in the Vatican . . . at an audience with none other than Pope Benedict XVI.

But those details aside – and when you consider that his job has been doling out misery nationwide via more taxes and cuts – Enda Kenny had a pretty good year. Up to the tailend of November, Fine Gael and he remained remarkably popular at home.

The Red C poll results published on December 1 – ominously just days short of Budget 2013 – showed a fall of six points in Fine Gael's popularity rating. There was a 1pc rise for Labour, which will leave the governing parties each waiting with keen interest on the next poll results in the new year.

In great part, the government story of 2012 has been about Fine Gael and Labour tussling and tugging the 'political credit blanket' between them. Fine Gael was preoccupied with not being the author of raising income taxes – while putting through a whole raft of new taxes. Labour was fixated on not been fingered for cutting welfare rates – while still being blamed for other welfare cuts.

This attitude must change if the Kenny-Gilmore/Fine Gael-Labour Coalition is to continue to work with any effect in 2013. Apart from avoiding those Davos and Rome-style concentration lapses, it is up to the Taoiseach to broker a new coalition relationship. Some gestures from him to his Labour colleagues must be met with the junior partners winding down their damnable 'Fine-Gael-got-one–now-we-want-one' attitude.

This more grown-up attitude to politics must extend to all of the parties as they face a new opportunity to deal with the abortion issue, which has divided the Irish people for 30 years.

After a poor response to the fall-out from the death of Indian mother Savita Halappanavar in Galway in October, Mr Kenny has moved with relative speed and the Taoiseach hopes to have a new law and regulations in place by mid-2013.

The issue of a mother's suicide risk in turn risks splitting Fine Gael internally and/or driving a wedge between it and Labour in government. It is up to Mr Kenny to closely manage this one – he cannot rely upon his Health Minister James Reilly, who, after the events of 2012, cannot end 2013 still in office.

Irish people were a little puzzled by Enda Kenny's minor celebrity status abroad but it is fair to suggest that this did him no harm either. In November, he was named European of the Year by the German Magazine Publishers' Association, VDZ.

A month earlier, Mr Kenny featured on the cover of the European edition of the news magazine 'Time' and was billed as leading a 'Celtic Comeback' in a report which suggested that his Government's fierce economic austerity was bringing results.

From January 1, 2013, Mr Kenny will lead Ireland's EU presidency for the seventh time in the country's 40 years of EU membership. It will bring huge challenges as he is chiefly tasked with brokering a deal on the €1 trillion EU budget for the seven years 2014-2020, reconciling the divisive stance of Britain and others.

More subtly, the Taoiseach must also push Ireland's very slow-moving EU case for bank-debt forgiveness over the six-month term. He will need all the international kudos he can muster.

All things considered, Enda Kenny came through the many tough challenges in 2012 rather well. However, the next 12 months will pose even tougher obstacles which will prove much harder for him to manage through. A quick reflection on his doings this past year could prove an extremely helpful reference for broaching the political year 2013.

More immediately, the 'poshies' are planning another gathering and another great welcome for themselves in Davos again in a few weeks time.

John Downing is author of 'Enda Kenny: The Unlikely Taoiseach' published by Paperweight Publications

Irish Independent

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