Thursday 29 September 2016

No imminent coup, but Kenny's credibility has been badly dented

Published 11/07/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin yesterday.
Photo: Stephen Collins
Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin yesterday. Photo: Stephen Collins

'What is compound interest? Well, compound interest is interest on interest," an uncle of mine, who lived to a venerable and prosperous age, liked to reflect when talk turned to embattled farmers' many travails with the banks and other lenders.

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Similarly, we can extend the maxim to "compound instability". On May 6, 70 days after an inconclusive General Election, we got a minority hybrid coalition led by a battered Fine Gael, incorporating some unlikely Independents, and propped up by a Fianna Fáil party looking towards a much brighter medium-term future.

Another word for that was "instability". And 11 weeks later we very definitely have "compound instability".

Not only has Fianna Fáil been pulling the strings from the opposition benches. And not only have the Independent Alliance ministers been insisting they can vote whatever way they like. But Fine Gael members are now getting increasingly jittery and putting pressure on their leader, Enda Kenny, to state his intentions on leaving office.

At Leinster House, TDs and senators who fought campaigns which were expensive in cash and personal terms were looking again at projections of "how long this can last". Naturally, it depends who you talk to.

But this writer came across many who were saying you could not expect too much beyond summer 2017. The assumption is subject to continuing change.

People still stay with the notion that there is nothing to be gained from pulling things down before the Budget in October. At this stage that one should largely write itself.

The last election threw up the most diverse Dáil line-up ever. One of the few common points - from the most left-wing radical to the most right-wing conservative - was that no one wanted an election any time soon. They had neither money, energy, nor campaign-team back-up to go on the road again.

Mention of next summer is interesting. Another common point all sides may have is a preference for canvassing when the evenings are longer, and there is a sporting chance that the rain is not coming down in sheets. One of the reasons the last election did not really catch the public imagination was the distinct lack of street life and little if any direct linkage between canvass teams and voters.

But on top of all the other variables, upcoming events may not leave much scope for choreographing election timing to suit the season. As we approach the close of an extraordinary Dáil term, we can list our final common point across the political spectrum: all politicians have at least one eye on the Leinster House gate as they yearn for a holiday.

We do not expect sympathy. But the simple fact is that the election campaign was long and tough. People are tired.

Tired politicians are, like people in all other trades, prone to error. This day last week we saw a big one as Mr Kenny had teed up an excruciating slap-down from Northern Ireland First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, Arlene Foster.

Mr Kenny's trailing of a pan-Irish Forum to deal with the Brexit fallout was a great idea. Shame they did not first run it past Ms Foster and her colleagues before publicising it.

On reflection, another annoying feature of it all was that it gave a ball to the DUP following their own disastrous referendum campaign. There are strong grounds for arguing that they made the wrong call by advocating a 'Leave' vote in the EU referendum. Any hard-headed evaluation would have shown the EU's manifold benefits for the North.

There are few grounds for believing that Brussels' farm, regional, social and peace grants, soon to be lost to the North, will ever be repaid by London. Meetings in Belfast in the immediate referendum aftermath had suggested a common front could be made with Dublin. Now such an alliance looks less likely.

The fallout from Mr Kenny's other problem - the conflict with the Independent Alliance ministers over a free-vote on fatal foetal abnormality - continued over the weekend. Leo Varadkar, one of the ones who would perhaps replace Mr Kenny, was busy laying down the law to Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan.

Mr Varadkar correctly noted that the Independents had destabilised the Government and damaged their own brand. The Independents shot back that they completely rejected his comments. The rest of us felt this was going on far too long.

This damaging row seems to be headed into its third week. In the first place it should not have happened at all. But its continuance shows there is an urgent need to build internal structures to avoid and, in extremis, manage such tensions.

The Independents are learning that government is slow, hard and complex. Good opposition politicians can be right about much that is wrong. Very good government politicians struggle to be adjudged right about getting almost anything right these days.

It appears to be taking too much scarce time for that much to dawn. Many Fine Gael members are around that much longer in the corridors of power. They could be better at remembering to avoid provocation.

All of which brings us back to the question of Mr Kenny's future span as Taoiseach. It all turns on the much-rehearsed conflict between two pledges of his own. He has said he will not lead Fine Gael into the next election - but will serve a full government term as Taoiseach. Last month, he told the Irish Independent he had a plan to resolve that puzzler. But the details of this plan remain a mystery.

There are serious noises from those TDs passed over for promotion following their struggling return to government. There are continuing feelings of grievance about a seriously under-achieving and badly planned Fine Gael election campaign fronted by Mr Kenny. The frontrunners for his replacement continue to throw shapes. If you take Mr Varadkar's shape-throwing at face value, or even at a 50pc rhetorical discount, you would have to say he would be laying down the law to Independents in government if he were to win. A general election would follow swiftly in such a case - so, cue the compound instability.

But what odds on Mr Kenny getting the heave-ho from his TDs and senators any time soon? The immediate answer is there is little sign of any imminent coup. Those who remember their last botched attempt in June 2010 would do well to reflect a little more.

The Taoiseach's internal party critics are limited in numbers and more limited in morale. This one appears to be a slow-burner for now as holidays beckon.

Besides, the Cabinet and inner circle of supporters are beginning to circle the wagons. For EU Affairs Minister Dara Murphy, just back from a week of meetings in Brussels and at the European Parliament sessions in Strasbourg, Mr Kenny still packs a punch in EU circles. For Mr Murphy, Mr Kenny is vital to Ireland's successful navigation of the perilous Brexit course.

The argument shows admirable loyalty. But the reality is that the Taoiseach's credibility has been damaged by the calamities of the last week and the fallout from them continues. Mr Kenny is on a dangerous corner and his credibility - as our best chance at EU level - and his credentials as coalition conciliator, have been dented. It is time for efforts on all sides to dial down the rhetoric and return to work.

All of this is happening at a time when steady government - if strong government is deemed too much of a stretch - is an absolute need. All of those involved could well find the voters will take a very dim view of reckless and self-interested action. The upcoming political week has to be about refocusing on what matters.

Irish Independent

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