Sunday 28 August 2016

'Dear Leader' Enda is facing stark choices in political game of thrones

Michael Noonan's illness will remind the Taoiseach how exposed he would be without him, says John Drennan

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan pictured at Government Buildings
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan pictured at Government Buildings
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan speaking about his illness at Government Buildings during the week

We were not quite in Murder in the Cathedral territory last week, but as the slow-acting toxins of election 2014 continue to seep into the bodies of the main political parties, it was a damn close-run thing.

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In the whispering corridors, fear, loathing and its more sensual sister – ambition, abound to such an extent no one in the Cabinet is safe, except Michael Noonan and 'Dear Leader' Enda.

The mood is unlikely to change too swiftly either, for the death-throes – apologies – contest to lead Labour will strip the Government of any impetus to action for another month.

In fairness, there is at least a sense that change is on the way.

Happily, in the case of Labour, there is no option but to act radically.

But what Enda Kenny will be really fretting over is how his own party will respond if Joan Burton takes a political meat cleaver to Labour's ministers.

In a classic example of how when the cat's away, the mice will play, the sustained attack on James Reilly last week by Fine Gael TDs left Labour looking like a palace of wisdom and serenity.

It's not quite a mutiny, but Fine Gael, and in particular its unruly younger wing, is indulging in its own version of cabinet war games.

All of this will come as a source of some horror to a 'Dear Leader' whose political instincts have been forged by the three wasted decades of Fine Gael at war.

Were he left to his own devices, Enda's instincts would be to spend the summer dawdling over whether he might dare to replace Jimmy Deenihan in Arts and Culture.

But the game has moved on.

Even Enda understands something fundamental is needed to deal with the accelerating deterioration of his own party's standing.

The vast problem, however, is that when it comes to any reshuffle he has built his Cabinet on the foundations of intellectual sand.

When it comes to promotions, normally one selects from the ranks of the junior ministers, but there is no one to credibly promote except for Michael Ring and Brian Hayes.

Oh wait, the latter has gone to Europe and, intriguingly, Mr Hayes hasn't stopped grinning since he scraped in.

But even before we get to the promotions, there will be conniptions when it comes to the sackings.

What, for example, is Enda to do with a problem called Cute Old Phil?

If he sends Phil to Brussels he will spark a national furore about cronyism and graft and the politics of "chaps looking after chaps".

But if he decides that he needs Phil at his side, the difficulties in dealing with an unhappy Phil will be legion, to put it mildly.

Ultimately, Enda may have no choice but to keep Phil, for his other close ally, Dr Reilly, is languishing in the political equivalent of the intensive care unit with a thermometer in his mouth and a chart that is only heading southwards.

Enda's troubles do not end there, for the spectral atmosphere within Fine Gael means there is even talk over the political future of Michael Noonan.

The Finance Minister has made it clear that he intends to carry on, but, when it comes to the paucity of talent, it will have concentrated Fine Gael minds that Simon Coveney has emerged as the most likely alternative.

Few within the thoughtful ranks of the party are smiling at that.

The illness of the Finance Minister will have provided Mr Kenny with a sanguine reminder of how politically exposed he would be without the presence of his veteran consigliere.

But it also reminds FG TDs of the brittle state of a government that depends so heavily on a 70-year-old Finance Minister.

Such uncertainty means the odds on Enda letting Phil off to Europe are widening – for the only ones he can promote to fill the ever-increasing gaps are political enemies and callow youths.

Of course every instinct of the 'Dear Leader' will be to avoid the latter option.

But how well will those Frapuccino Kids react if the only response to their plight consists of five more years of indentured service on the back benches?

Ultimately, the greatest problem Enda faces is that Cabinet poker will not cure what ails the Coalition.

It might create the appearance of reform but will not deal with the existential need for a new democratic and fiscal revolution.

Sunday Independent

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