News John Downing

Saturday 23 August 2014

What Enda and Joan do next must restore confidence to a weary public

Published 30/06/2014 | 02:30

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IT IS the worst-kept secret at Leinster House that Joan's people have been talking to Enda's people as we begin a very busy week in Irish politics.

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At tea-time next Friday, we expect a new leader of the Labour Party and de facto Tanaiste to be named. Tomorrow week, we expect that Taoiseach Enda Kenny will unveil his newlook government team.

And sometime soon – perhaps before, during or shortly after these developments – we expect to know the name of Ireland's new EU Commissioner.

All of that will keep the political anoraks well occupied. But after five weeks of minimal political activity in the wake of local and European mid-term elections, we are faced into a very busy month which has the potential to shape the nation's future for quite a few years to come.

What happens through July has the potential to indicate whether we can actually haul ourselves out of recession. It will also give us a strong indicator on whether this Fine Gael-Labour coalition can go full term to spring 2016.

It will also tell us something about the shape of our national politics beyond the next election.

Let's deal with these items in the order in which they will come at us. We know that Joan Burton will be the new Labour leader. Labour stalwarts assure us that the drawn-out five-week election process was useful in stoking up party morale and enthusing their members.

For everyone else, it was a time-consuming and at times dreary carry-on which told the greater public very little. Ms Burton's rival, Alex White, had the air of a man making up the numbers while also lodging a public application for a full cabinet seat.

Meanwhile, as the old saying goes, Enda's people have been in contact with Joan's people. So, we can hope the pace will pick up from here on. The two parties will have to somehow re-frame their joint approach to government; and Labour, in particular, must spool back from the dangerous game of suggesting that this coalition may not be durable. They will have to shape and announce a new government team which has the look of something that gives some confidence back to a rather recession-weary public.

Joan Burton knows that talk of brinkmanship is too high a price to pay for making her own Labour troops feel good for a short while. The only real hope of redemption for Labour, as for Fine Gael, remains in staying the course and pursuing better economic and political conditions via a real economic pick-up.

There have been noises about Labour seeking the post of EU Commissioner for outgoing party leader Eamon Gilmore.

The theory does not really compute politically for very many reasons – not least the most basic fact that getting it would not help Labour win back popular support. Surely, it would be a case of 'there goes the election promise-breaker Eamon Gilmore off to a fat cat Brussels gig?'

But of all the decisions up and coming for Mr Kenny, we must insist that the EU Commissioner nomination is the most important. He must send our ablest and most skilful politician as there are big challenges ahead.

The next two years in Brussels are going to be mainly about whether or not Britain exits the European Union. Ireland would probably ultimately manage decent unilateral arrangements with a non-EU Britain.

But the EU without Britain would be a much poorer place and not necessarily in Ireland's interests. Ireland has the potential to play a meaningful role in this process of helping Britain resolve its EU dilemmas as a smaller nation that has good working relations with all sides.

On lots of other levels, Ireland needs a strong commissioner ensconced in a worthwhile portfolio with political clout in Brussels and the other EU capitals.

With a full-blown EU inquiry opened on Ireland's corporate tax investment incentives, the questions about this country's company tax regime will remain high on the agenda. We need the best possible links into the complex EU system.

More than 28 years ago, on Valentine's Day 1986, a young Enda Kenny was welcomed back to Mayo as a junior minister in Garret FitzGerald's FG-Labour coalition. Apart from Mayo Fine Gael's feel-good factor, there was very little good news for the government and the re-shuffle was a botch. Just a year later, all concerned were on the election trail and the government lost.

Enda Kenny knows that there is big stuff riding on his re-shuffle. If he gets it wrong, his own party could be facing a serious political slump and his coalition colleagues in Labour could be staring into the abyss.

But there are more than political party fortunes at stake.

The reality is that this country does not need an election any time soon. It needs leadership, resolution and stability.

What Enda Kenny and Joan Burton do – or fail to do – over the coming month, will have a big say in all of these matters. The political scene is coming back to life and some big calls are imminent.

 

John Downing

Irish Independent

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