Wednesday 26 October 2016

Feelgood vibe should just be enough for Labour

Gerard O'Regan

Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin and Finance Minister Michael Noonan at the Budget 2016 media briefing at Government Buildings, Dublin
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin and Finance Minister Michael Noonan at the Budget 2016 media briefing at Government Buildings, Dublin

Brendan Howlin just might be the hero of the Fine Gael-Labour partnership, now fast approaching its end times as General Election fever simpers through the body politic. It has been a good week for the Government, with a carefully thought-out, very, very, crafty political budget, designed to squeeze the last possible vote come hustings time.

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Inevitably, it's a plan not without its critics. But it could also be a road map which might nudge the economy forward. On a simplistic level, the fact that punters in general will have a few extra euro in their pockets should be good for business all round.

After the rigidity of the austerity straitjacket, a loosening of the purse strings is consoling for the country's head space, if nothing else. On the other hand, those who worry about our debt levels being too high are right to sound a cautionary tale.

But the old maxim that sometimes one has to spend money to make money, should be given a hearing.

In any case, our economic prospects will as always be very tied up with what is happening on the international scene.

There are always blips on the horizon, but as of now, as much as anybody can predict, the portents are good.

On the politics front, the most important consolation of all for the Government parties is that there is tangible and measurable financial gain for practically every voter in the country.

That's sweet, very sweet, for any TD seeking re-election. No wonder Michael Noonan could hardly conceal his glee over the past few days

With such a favourable wind behind him, the avuncular old street fighter was at times thirsting for a scrap.

The quote of the week was surely his mafiosa-style aside to the garrulous Independent, Mattie McGrath, who had the temerity to interrupt his Dáil speech.

"You got a problem?'' he growled.

Noonan's mix of mild-mannered menace, coupled with the aura of a favourite uncle radiating quiet efficiency, has served this Government well. The perception of a steady hand on the tiller, particularly during the bailout days when the Troika heavies were around, was vital for the public image of the Coalition.

This week, Fianna Fáil's Michael McGrath led the opposition attack on Budget 2016 - but it seemed, in my view, as if his heart just wasn't in it.

It was the same with Sinn Féin deputies and some of the Independents. They could justifiably highlight the problems of homelessness and our troubled health service.

But for good or ill, it all sounded too peripheral, as Noonan stuck to his core mantra.

The hated USC was being whittled down and other goodies were on the table.

Beside him, more often than not, was the diminutive figure of Brendan Howlin. As is sometimes the case, the Labour man seemed over-respectful to the big bear from Fine Gael.

Yet Howlin's great strength is that he has such solid political presence.

He realises that if he is seen to be trying too hard, it only diminishes his argument.

In any case, Howlin is verbally capable of displaying his own sense of groundedness - something which has been manifest in his partnership with Noonan over the past few years.

Yet during all this time he has personified both Labour's strength and weakness.

Philosophically speaking, he is a social democrat, accepting there can be no hard-line socialism if you are a minority party in Coalition with the instinctive economic conservatism of Fine Gael.

He can argue that on this front, the worst excesses of Fine Gael have been held in check.

But it would be easy to underestimate the pressures on Howlin at the financial coalface, fending off unashamedly populist politics from the opposition during the austerity years. Holding the line - trying to keep a Coalition together in such times of high stress - required a deft political touch.

Howlin's sure-foootedness at the epicentre of the Fine Gael and Labour union has ensured there has never been the risk of a fissure which would have led to the Government breaking up.

The history books might suggest this was his - and Labour's - biggest achievement when the Irish economy seriously wobbled. However, as polling day looms, party leader Joan Burton, and no doubt Howlin in his private moments, must be as jittery as hell.

A really bad day at the office could mean a near wipeout of Labour in Leinster House.

And the question has to be asked, was Burton right in insisting on a springtime election?

Will the current feelgood vibe, inspired by those USC cuts and the like, survive what might turn out to be a harsh political winter?

At the end of it all, Labour must cling to its old fall-back position.

Each of its Dáil deputies must fight their own very individual battle to try and make it back to the Dail. How Labour as a party is polling on the national scene must be secondary.

A down and dirty dogfight in each constituency is how many of its TDs scraped through so many times in the past.

And so we wait for Judgment Day.

Then we will find out if the Howlin style of consensus politics, rooted in the sweet middle ground, will be enough to keep some of his high-risk colleagues from falling over the cliff face.

Irish Independent

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