News John Downing

Saturday 23 August 2014

Next election more pressing for Kenny than top EU job

Published 26/06/2014 | 02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny is going to "Wipers" this afternoon to meet his EU buddies. The handsome Belgian town has three names – Ypres to French speakers, leper to the Flemish, and "Wipers" to World War I British soldiers who struggled to pronounce either. Beginning a century ago, it witnessed some of the worst horrors of the Great War.

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The symbolic venue for the opening of a decisive EU leaders' summit is intended to bring all the leaders back to first principles about effective co-operation between the 28 member states.

Life has not been good of late for the EU leaders who will assemble on the edge of Flanders Fields. And Kenny has had six months of his own growing basket of political woes.

Since the departure of the EU-ECB-IMF troika on December 15 last, Kenny's government has appeared increasingly adrift. More recently, associates describe him as "grumpy" and unable to make a decision. Some imminent and unpalatable decisions weigh heavily upon him as he must, to quote Macbeth, "murder and create" in a radical reshuffle early next month.

All government insiders agree last month's local election reverse was the outcome of months of justice controversies focused on Alan Shatter; messed-up presentations on water charges and property tax; and a failure to deal with the year-long discretionary medical card debacle.

Kenny knows he must regroup and switch national political debate back to big-picture economic issues. The slow but persistent drop in unemployment and success in long-fingering and managing bank and other debts have been good for the Government and the country.

If promised tax cuts are delivered the national mood could change too. Kenny & Co are down right now – but they are not necessarily out.

Ahead of this EU summit, the question again arises should, or indeed could, Enda go to Europe to take up a lucrative and prestigious post? Some at Leinster House say it might be his wisest choice.

Kenny has always denied any interest in the two jobs for which he was being mooted in Brussels. For various reasons at least one of these jobs appears a non-starter for the Taoiseach and the second is also less likely.

First is that of EU Commission president, replacing outgoing Jose Manuel Barosso, from next October. Kenny was cited as a potential compromise given Britain's and some other states' fierce opposition to federalist Jean-Claude Juncker. The prospect now appears unlikely as German persistence over Juncker seems to be winning out.

The second job is president of the European Council, the group of EU government leaders. Kenny was seen as ideal for this as it involves organising summit agendas and "political fixing" to broker compromises. But the smart money is now on Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt who has public support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Taoiseach has repeatedly insisted he will finish the job of rebuilding the Irish economy and try to win a first two-in-a-row general election victory for Fine Gael. Still, an exit to Brussels would have its considerable points – interesting international work, renewed prestige at home, and a trebling if not a quadrupling of his pay.

But if Kenny took the "Euro exit door", there is no name which readily springs to mind as a capable person who could take over the reins. Talk of Michael Noonan as "caretaker Taoiseach" has diminished after revelations of his recent illness. The focus remains on the cabinet reshuffle expected to be unveiled on or about Tuesday, July 8, just four days after Labour announce the result of its marathon leadership election.

Everybody expects Joan Burton to win and she is expected to bring three new Labour faces to cabinet with Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore expected to move out.

Three cabinet changes is the minimum Kenny can do on the Fine Gael side. One vacancy arises from the expected appointment of Environment Phil Hogan to the EU Commission.

That would leave two FG sackings on the cards. Many believe Health Minister James Reilly will go. It's a big call for Kenny to sack his party deputy leader who was loyal to him in the seminal June 2010 attempted heave. But its one he must contemplate.

Jimmy Deenihan is also mentioned despite a very good performance in Arts, Culture, Heritage & Gaeltacht.

But in truth, not the smallest information has so far emanated from Government Buildings on the issue. Back in February 1986, Kenny had a ringside seat as he got his first junior government job, but also watched Garret FitzGerald make a hash of a reshuffle which presaged a huge general election defeat a year later. Almost three decades on, Kenny knows what is at stake.

John Downing

Irish Independent

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