Kenny's 'we are the good guys' fantasy self-image crumbling in face of reality
This government has gone from being a crisis government to a government in crisis, writes Brendan O'Connor
ACCORDING to today's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll, only half of people (51 per cent) think the Government will last its full term. Three years ago, it probably would have been unthinkable that the Government wouldn't last its full term. At that point, the only previous competition for forming a Government was dead in the water. The main party of the new Government had almost won an overall majority and by, unnecessarily some would have said, adding Labour to the Coalition, it enjoyed an unassailable majority.
In addition, the very fact that they were sober and walked to work and had relatively clean hands due to not being in power for a while made them almost like some kind of fantasy government, after the slightly boozy drift of the previous government.
The new administration couldn't go wrong. Their only real opposition, and with it the last two governments, was completely demonised and blamed for everything that was wrong with the country. And the new guys took over when Ireland was at its lowest ebb in quite some time. We didn't even have our sovereignty anymore.
The only way was up.
For a while, it all went according to plan. They got us back our sovereignty, albeit by following the plan laid down by their toxic predecessors. Europe threw us a few bones, things became stable again; employment even started going up. It helped too that the almost apocalyptic air of instability surrounding Europe and the single currency abated somewhat.
The new government were the good guys who brought us back from the edge. People began to wonder if they had underestimated Enda Kenny's leadership skills. And when there was any whiff of a problem, the excrement generally ran downhill anyway, and the Taoiseach remained untainted by the smell. James Reilly was blamed for the continuing dysfunctional nature of the health service, Phil Hogan for the messy way water charges were unveiled. The odd individual took the hit, but the Government remained firm. And if there was any hint of unpopularity, they just had to remind us of the last crowd and remind us how lucky we were to have them now.
Indeed, reminding people that everything is Fianna Fail's fault seemed to be a central plank of this administration. And indeed it continues to be. Just last week, when tackled on the Government's plans to inflate the property market, a move that seems suspiciously Fianna Fail-ish to some, the best the Taoiseach could do was to talk again about how we will not go back to the bad old days.
He then went on to make the extraordinary statement that Priory Hall was the hallmark of the previous government. As if the previous government was defined by a dodgy development built by a crooked former terrorist.
They were bad, but they weren't that bad.
But that has been how it has been. If the current government could not find something good to say about themselves, they were always at least able to point out something bad about Fianna Fail. This was in danger of becoming their hallmark: "Vote for us. We are not Fianna Fail". Which, in fact, was enough at one point to get you elected. But it's no longer enough to keep you there. Things change and people move on and the electorate have short memories. In this game, you're only as good as your last match.
Having identified itself so strongly as not being Fianna Fail and also having identified itself as the party to get us out of the bailout, it seems as if this Government is having a slight crisis of identity now that we are out of the bailout and things are settling down again. We all like someone stable to steer us through a crisis but once things are on an even keel again, we might start to look for other qualities in our leaders. The economy was the only show in town for a while, and once the Government seemed to be handling that all right (or at least administrating the plan properly for the troika) then we were happy not to expect too much else from them. But crisis over, in the cold light of day, we began to ask more questions of them and they began to seem wanting.
Another problem for the Government now is that the grand unifying force that brought the two parties of government together and that gave them a very clear focus and direction – that patriotic impetus to get us out of the bailout – is now receding. And while two parties that would be diametrically opposed in normal circumstances were happy to act as this soi disant national government for a while, once that overriding impetus was gone, the cracks began to show.
These fissures weren't helped by the fact that while Fine Gael seemed to get all the credit for the rehabilitation of the country, and none of the blame for the terrible cost that exacted on the citizens, Labour was blamed for everything, because people expected more of Labour. Labour were the ones forced to renege on promises, Labour were the ones forced to stand over things that were anathema to their core values. Labour were the ones who lost high-profile members who refused to have anything to do with the carnage on the sick and the disabled and the vulnerable. Labour is the party being destroyed by this Government.
And Labour is the one making noises now about the need to refocus the Government, to renegotiate the Programme for Government, to move onto the next phase. Labour are the ones who need the second chapter of the story to begin now, the one where the Government stops being a crisis government and becomes a successful post-crisis one, a government that goes beyond just fixing the past and starts imagining a future.
Fine Gael is aware of this need to move on too. They are aware too that everything has changed since the honeymoon days. The Government has moved on from being a crisis government to being a government in crisis, and people are no longer grateful to them just for not being Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail is having an unlikely and sporadic renaissance and is only a few points off Fine Gael in some opinion polls. In the meantime, a whole new political force has risen up in the form of Sinn Fein and the Independents. These guys are totally untainted, having never been in government, and their anti-austerity and anti-establishment message is chiming with a disaffected people. Nothing is their fault, and when they attack Enda Kenny, he can't remind them of their past sins.
This government also keeps getting itself into right old messes. This is a government that would like to be known as the good guys who saved the country after it was ruined by the bad guys in Fianna Fail. They would like to be seen as the guys who will never let us go back to those days. They would like us to feel safe now, because they are here.
That is their fantasy self-image. The reality is that this is increasingly a Government that is seen as being as tricky and messy and full of it as Fianna Fail ever was. They have taken what was a manageable problem in the justice area and, due to ass-covering and arrogance and misplaced loyalty, have turned it into probably the biggest crisis ever to hit the gardai and the justice system.
And in the last few days, that scandal seemed to inch closer and closer to touching Enda Kenny. He got quite testy with Roisin Shortall when she asked him the other day to allow Brian Purcell to explain what happened around the sacking of the Garda Commissioner, or indeed to explain it himself. There is now talk of the Taoiseach being summoned before the Oireachtas Justice Committee, which won't fit in with his self- image at all. And the more he gets testy about talking about it, the more people wonder what he has to hide.
There are other messy little things hanging around too. The issue of discretionary medical cards being taken from very sick children and children with disabilities is not going away and is another one of those things that cuts to the core of Labour's conscience. Equally, the notion of the Government helping people to get 95 per cent mortgages so they can outbid each other to drive up the price of limited housing is making Labour and lots of other people uncomfortable. It's too soon. It's too recently that 100 per cent mortgages destroyed a generation and it's too recently that a Government was seen to destroy the country by giving builders a digout and by interfering in the property market with pro-cyclical incentives. It is also too soon for us to hear about the Government offering anything that has the word "guarantee" in it. And it is being seen as a demand-led solution to what is a supply-side problem.
So the sheen has gone off this Government for sure. The people are increasingly disillusioned, as is one of the parties in Government. But no one should underestimate the dogged determination of the more senior citizens in Labour to keep the show on the road, and the determination of Kenny to stay leader now that he has finally made it. They won't go willingly. They will continue to brazen it out, even if they have to lose a few foot soldiers along the way. But even immovable objects like Shatter can sometimes be dislodged. And the more messes that develop, the more chance that one of them will topple everything.
The core of the administration has remained immune up to now, but if we've learnt one thing about this government, it's that you never know what other mess is around the corner.