Tuesday 25 October 2016

Martin shows Enda how persistence in face of fickle public can pay dividends

Published 12/07/2016 | 02:30

'How long can and should Kenny continue to battle in this way?'
'How long can and should Kenny continue to battle in this way?'

Micheál Martin is a walking example of the value of persistence in the face of adversity in public life. Mr Martin's current ascendant position in Irish politics also personifies the Irish people's inability to remain angry for any prolonged length of time.

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Those are two thoughts an embattled Enda Kenny will have pondered over the past eight days, which were his worst since he was first elected Taoiseach on March 9, 2011. Mr Martin's eventual success after five years of boxing off the ropes is another thing telling Kenny to tough this one out.

But the real question for the Taoiseach, and his jittery party colleagues, continues to be: How long can and should Kenny continue to battle in this way?

The short answer to that one may be that he will quite likely make it to the Budget in October. Thereafter, it would be better for everyone concerned - not least the Irish people - if he made an early exit.

The core problem continues to be the conflict over the Taoiseach's two previous assertions. He has said he will serve a full term in office but will not lead his party into the next election.

How do you choreograph those two politically? Add the fact that we cannot know when the next election will be, and you have a total political conundrum.

Kerry Fine Gael backbencher Brendan Griffin yesterday became the first to break ranks and publicly demand a new leader by next September. Soon after that Kenny was out and about in his native Castlebar and in a bullish mood. He insisted he had both a mandate and a job to complete.

At the Sacred Heart Hospital and care home in Castlebar, Co Mayo, the Taoiseach said his focus has always been on securing Ireland's future.

"I have no intention of being diverted from that work that I have undertaken, and for which I have received a mandate to fulfil," he said.

"That's my focus and my focus is entirely on the future.

"For those who might be interested, I will not be diverted from that task and that duty and that responsibility, which is the mandate given to me by the people," Kenny insisted.

A trio of ministers were quick to endorse the Taoiseach's resolute stance. Health Minister Simon Harris, Education Minister Richard Bruton and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan all utterly dismissed the prospects of an election heave.

For Flanagan, the experience and expertise of Kenny were needed more than ever to face the challenges posed by Brexit. Perhaps a little ironically, he also welcomed calls by Independent Transport Minister Shane Ross for stability and calm.

Other ministers followed suit, including Finance Minister Michael Noonan, who was speaking ahead of a eurozone finance ministers' meeting in Brussels. Junior Minister Michael Ring, who has had a spiky enough relationship with his boss and constituency rival over the past two decades, also fell back on his habit at such times of donning the green and red of Mayo with a strong message of support.

Griffin had publicly voiced the anxiety of other TDs, and some senators hoping to battle back into the Dáil, when he said a new leader was the only way to stop Fianna Fáil bouncing his party unprepared into an election this autumn.

Griffin also refused to rule out seeking a vote of no confidence in Kenny. Fianna Fáil has, of course, agreed to support the Fine Gael-led minority Government for three budgets, taking us up to autumn 2018. But Griffin said Martin and company cannot be trusted to avoid fixing on various budget decisions as an excuse to force an earlier election.

But in a funny way, the Kerry deputy may have been doing Kenny a short-term favour. When push comes to shove here, forcing the Taoiseach's hand right now looks rather brutal.

It is unlikely that there will be a motion of no confidence at tomorrow's meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. It is also unlikely that there will an initiative by Kenny supporters to "lance the boil" by calling a confidence vote in the leader. Kenny has rallied his core supporters for now. The widespread anxiety within Fine Gael does not add up to enough political heft for a heave right now.

But he still needs to address the central conflict in his two statements on his political future. And it will be a major surprise if Kenny is still Taoiseach by the new year. He is really on borrowed time here.

In fairness to the Taoiseach, it is always difficult to resolve the conflict between publicly stating a departure date and avoiding becoming a "lame duck". Those inbuilt conflicts and the central problem will persist.

The only remedy now is to adopt as much of a "business as usual" approach as is possible. Kenny is in Germany today for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is a chance to claw back some ground on Brexit after the calamity at Dublin Castle last Monday week.

Then he was publicly rebuffed on his "All-Ireland Brexit Forum" by the North's First Minister, Arlene Foster, who said she had not been consulted before he publicised the idea.

That rebuke compounded his other difficulties and fed into further anxieties fuelled by a surge in support for Fianna Fáil seen in a survey last Thursday, which put it on 33pc, its highest rating since 2008. The total reversal of political fortunes is nothing short of intriguing. Future polls will be closely watched to see if the trend is sustained.

But let's not forget that Micheál Martin was a key team member in all of Bertie Ahern's and Brian Cowen's line-ups from January 1995 until January 2011, just weeks after the EU-IMF landed upon us. Then he belatedly quit government and took over the party leadership to lead it into an historic electoral meltdown. Now Martin is back wielding political power and plotting what next. A tale of persistence and a fickle public.

Irish Independent

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