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Monday 22 September 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Kenny blooms as Cowen wilts under the spotlight

Published 13/09/2010 | 05:00

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ENDA Kenny had the crowd eating out of his hands as he addressed the Construction Industry Federation's conference on economic recovery.

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Whatever about the cringe-making nature of some of his utterances or his lacklustre attempts at persecuting the Government, he is polished at holding an audience.

Ranging from anecdotes to party policy, he sought to engage with the 200 people in attendance last Friday.

Contrast it with Taoiseach Brian Cowen's performance in the same venue, the new Convention Centre Dublin, three days earlier.

Officially opening the brand new centre, Cowen went through the motions as he ploughed through his scripted speech, failing to leave any lasting impression on the gathering of 500 Dublin business figures, local residents and clients of the centre who would potentially be bringing millions of euro of business to the capital.

Increasingly, Cowen's appearances on big occasions bear all the hallmarks of a leader who just doesn't want there to be a public element to his role.

It's not that he's unenthusiastic about the post of Taoiseach, he appears to just want to do the job in private.

How else do you explain the impatience in his answers on RTE's 'Six One News' last Wednesday as he came out to 'explain' the Anglo Irish Bank plan?

Over the course of seven minutes, he began a number of his responses to simple questions of public interest from Bryan Dobson with the surly comebacks: "Well, as I've said ... .", "Well I've told you ... ..", "Well I've just explained ... ..", "Yes, well, obviously ... ..".

"As I've said" is a familiar retort for the regular press corps following him on a weekly basis who have the temerity to seek a reply to a question he hasn't answered. And fair enough, he's the Taoiseach.

But you won't find showing such a dismissive attitude on live national television encouraged in any public relations course. Reinforcing the unfair perception of him as a boorish individual in a permanently cranky mood is hardly a clever strategy on Cowen's part.

To a growing degree, many within Fianna Fail have pretty much given up on their leader ever lifting his game and proving he can connect with the public, rather than alienate the electorate.

Too many false dawns have faded away.

The private Taoiseach will meet with his party's ministers, TDs and senators.

No doubt by 11am this morning, after Cowen has addressed Fianna Fail's annual think-in in the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway, backbenchers will emerge to say how inspired they were and lament the fact the broader public couldn't hear their leader in action.

It's an all-too-familiar pattern at this stage.

Impressing the country is the least of Cowen's problems over the coming days when he needs to quell the dissent within his own ranks.

A year ago he spoke of the importance of the impending 100 days, when he needed to get through the passing of the Lisbon Treaty referendum, the setting up of NAMA and the formulation of a Budget -- failing with any of which would have toppled his Government.

The dramatic narrative is missing this year, but the number of key objectives is the same within the timeframe. Cowen needs to square off the Anglo dilemma, pass the Budget again and keep his Coalition afloat until Christmas.

The tensions between Fianna Fail and the Green Party have contributed, in whole or in part, to the loss of a Fianna Fail TD and four senators already this year.

Willie O'Dea's efforts to put Dan Boyle back in his box are relatively harmless, provided the anti-Green sentiments within Fianna Fail don't escalate into efforts to hamper the junior coalition partners' policy agenda.

Whether Fianna Fail like it or not, the Greens are a necessary evil and the relationship will just have to remain workmanlike.

Indeed, compared with Fianna Fail's rate of attrition of TDs from the parliamentary party as a result of being opposed to various policies, the Greens have been bastions of loyalty to the Government.

Getting deeper into the Coalition's five-year term, the speculation over the date of the General Election will intensify.

Indeed, within government circles there is now an acceptance the odds are stacked high against the coalition surviving its full five years in power.

Aside from economic and banking pressures or any policy differences, the numbers are becoming tighter in Dail votes.

The holding of the three by-elections would make the situation worse, but there are also concerns over the health of at least four Fianna Fail TDs.

Cowen's ability to hold it all together will be tested again many times.

After the botched leadership heave, Kenny could be forgiven for thinking the worst is over for him and he now just has to hold his nerve to progress to Government Buildings.

The doubts over his leadership will never go away and questions may even spark up again if he gets hit by another few bad opinion polls.

But the failure of last June's heave and the potential proximity of a General Election will suit his agenda and focus the rebels' minds on protecting their own seats.

Kenny has told his party they are on a general election footing. In this regard, his party is finalising its platform for reforms of a wide section of public policy.

Kenny is taking the unprecedented step of telling the electorate it will take his party 10 years to implement the full range of proposals necessary, even though he can only get a mandate for five years.

He also acknowledges the state of the public finances may be far worse than the Government is conceding.

In a cruel world, the thought of Enda Kenny being in power for 10 years might lose Fine Gael as many votes as they win.

To his credit though, he is prepared to go to the voters with a plan and set out a vision of the shape of society in a decade's time -- a trait seemingly lacking in the current incumbent.

When the voters will get their chance to have their say is anybody's guess.

Irish Independent

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