independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: This Coalition's silly season just goes on and on

Enda Kenny arrives for the cabinet meeting at Government Buildings yesterday

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny yesterday declared three times that "the silly season is over". Let's hope he repeated the mantra to his cabinet ministers as they met for the first time after the summer break.

Ministers gathered following the turmoil caused by the botched handling of the announcement of health cuts, which had been well flagged. Mr Kenny was making a thinly veiled reference to the opposition to the package of health cuts or the speculation about a snap general election.

He was either having a dig at the media or the comments of coalition backbenchers, who have been leaping up and down about the package of €130m cuts in the health services.

But there was nothing sensible about Mr Kenny's Government allowing criticism of health cuts to flare up into a row that made the international media and even came to the attention of the IMF.

This Government's habit of ignoring problems and failing to nip dissent within its own ranks in the bud is quite silly. Instead, the Government, through slapdash internal and external communications from the off, stood by and watched as the furore developed.

Even last night, when a partial U-turn was decided upon, Health Minister Dr James Reilly still couldn't explain simply what was happening. No wonder he is landing is so much trouble all the time.

Once again, Dr Reilly was unavailable to spell out the position in plain English.

The Coalition appears to have learned little from the experience of its predecessors.

Although the RTE documentary on Ruairi Quinn's first year as Education Minister, 'Inside the Department', broadcast earlier this week revealed an administration obsessed with spin and presentation of even the smallest matters, the big ticket items like health cuts are dealt with in a haphazard manner.

On foot of the health cuts controversy, the question marks over the stability of the Government emerged unchecked. Rather than falling over each other to issue congratulations to athletes, a minister of sufficient rank ought to have hit back at this suggestion on Sunday.

The potential for instability at the heart of the administration was evidenced by the health-cuts affair. The Taoiseach was also warning again yesterday how the forthcoming Budget will be toughest for the Government.

Given the lacklustre approach to just €130m worth of health cuts this past week, how is the Coalition going to fare when it announces Budget 2013 with a total package of €3.5m-- €2.25bn in spending cuts and €1.25bn in taxes.

The fraying edges of the Government exposed over the past few days will have to be covered over. Ministers and backbenchers alike are going to have to start standing over the decisions they are taking.

The Budget is going to require far greater discipline on the part of Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore.

Michael Hasenstab ought to have been the name being mentioned most in relation to Irish economy over recent days. The US bond guru is now the single biggest private investor in Irish government bonds after raising his massive bet on an Irish recovery to €6bn.

Mr Hasenstab is a top money manager with US investment house Franklin Templeton, which manages €125bn of American pension and savings funds.

Franklin Templeton has now raised its investment in Irish government debt to €6.1bn -- up nearly 50pc in little more than six months, according to a report in the ' Financial Times'.

The outlay makes the US investment house the biggest lender to Ireland after the IMF and the eurozone rescue bonds.

Yet rather than focusing solely on the vote of confidence this growing investment appears to represent, the influential 'Financial Times' was quoting Colm Keaveney on his criticism of the health cuts and referencing his quotes to the 'Sunday Independent' at the weekend, saying Labour should prepare for a snap election.

OVER the years, the title of chairman of a coalition party has carried a certain cache. The Green Party and Progressive Democrats used their chairmen to express what protocol dictated those in Government couldn't say.

Mr Keaveney appears to be the opposite, not speaking for the Labour Party leadership at all. Yet Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore allows a whole two days to drift by before Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin is rolled out to mutter about the Government staying the course for five years.

Of course, Mr Keaveney's comments weren't a million miles away from Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte remarking last week about whether the Government could "survive" the Budget.

The timing of the reports of instability comes at a particularly bad time for the Government as it prepares to strike a deal on lowering the bank-debt burden.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan is due to attend a meeting of EU finance ministers in Cyprus next week, where a proposal is expected to be tabled.

The Government can ill afford speculation about its stability and question marks about its ability to put through the Budget.

The warnings are there now for the Coalition that any straying from the course and loose language will undermine the domestic and international confidence in the country.

After bleating on about the amount of work undertaken to restore the reputation of the country, Mr Kenny's own silly season threatened to undo that work.

Irish Independent

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