Sunday 23 November 2014

John Drennan: Honeymoon is over but marriage intact

Coalition solid in spite of rocky patches along road

Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

The story of this Government is very much Enda's story. There are other dramatis personae but, like the president in America, the portrait of a Taoiseach that emerges in power defines the nature of the canvas on which the rest of the government operates.



Brian Cowen, for example, had many effective, bright ministers but the black hole of Biffo's personal despair simply sucked the marrow from their bones.

Unlike the Gothic darkness of Brian Cowen's political tableau, Enda Kenny is more a creature of pastel. He is an impressionistic presence, a mosaic of light whose defining political characteristic is one of ambivalence. This is not necessarily harmful in politics for as Enda Kenny's doppelganger, that sociable loner Bertie Ahern, realised all too effectively, ambivalence can buy you time and space and this is a Taoiseach and a country that needs plenty of both.

Our ambivalence about Mr Kenny means that after a year as Taoiseach, and almost a decade in charge of Fine Gael, we still can't decide whether he is a masquerading political Playboy of the Western World or, like Sean Lemass, whose own best years were squandered by an incubus called Eamon de Valera, Mr Kenny is also a young old man in a hurry.

SINGLE-PARTY GOVERNMENT -- NO THANKS

Ambivalence certainly was the defining note of Kenny's initial post-electoral days. Such was the field position won for him by the experienced cunning of his finance spokesperson Michael Noonan, the main issue of the election was single-party or coalition government.

In fairness, a late, if muted, rally from Labour had left Fine Gael with 76 seats, roughly two seats shy of the sort of critical mass needed for single-party government.

Still, minority governments like those of Lemass and Haughey had, in relatively similar circumstances, been stable and successful.

In fairness, the variegated colours of a set of independents that covered all hues of the spectrum from Luke 'Ming' Flanagan to Shane Ross meant it was understandable that Kenny was uneasy with the high-wire act which might have left him depending on the patriotic instincts of Fianna Fail.

But, the enthusiasm and the speed with which he went into coalition talks with Labour suggested that the safety-first option of coalition had always been his favourite child. The question we would now have to see was, would caution be the defining feature of an administration that had said prior to seizing power that radical reform would be its template.

CABINET SHUFFLE KERFUFFLE

Ironically the selection of the Cabinet was to unveil a very different fault-line. Astonishingly for Labour, Eamon Gilmore had evolved into a weak link prior to the campaign. Few, and particularly the dissident wing of Fine Gael, could quibble with Kenny's Cabinet choices. A demoralised Gilmore had in contrast been bluffed into accepting five ministries.

But more critically still, the Grumpy Old Men, led by Quinn and Howlin, had ganged up on the isolated leader. The result was what appeared to be the effective side-lining of the party's star pre-election finance spokesperson Joan Burton and the highly effective Roisin Shorthall.

As Shorthall smouldered and Burton spared her leader's blushes, not even the relative importance of Brendan Howlin's Public Reform brief could disguise the fact that Labour had started out in Government on the back foot.

ENDA DOES AMERICA

For now though, all this was put on the side burner as Enda began his political honeymoon by visiting President Obama, the benchmark for political success throughout the world. It did come as somewhat of a shock to see a Fine Gael Taoiseach sitting at the top table with Mr Obama and mingling with the Bonfire of the Vanities-style billionaires. But, astonishingly, for many of us, amidst the gold drapes and marble splendour of Capitol Hill, Deputy, sorry, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was right at home. It helped that unlike the other fellow, he was clean-cut, presentable and able to read the correct speech. But, surprisingly, his courtly dignity won the affection and respect of his audience.

For us too, there was -- after the rotten last years of Bertie and Biffo's abyss -- a gathering hope that despite Kenny's less than youthful age, something both fresh and invigorating had entered Irish politics.

When it comes to Kenny in America, his comfort there should not have surprised, for no other Taoiseach has so completely taken his persona from the template of American politics. It is an intriguing difference for Irish politicians have been extraordinarily insular.

Though Kenny made it clear that the quiet death of government that had occurred during the Cowen era was over and under the FG equivalent of 'Glasnost', a bright new government was open for business, he still was no JFK.

Like the rest of the world, he also cannot match an Obama who is as cool as a foot-long cigar.

But in trying to belatedly understand who Mr Kenny is, we wonder if there is a touch of the Ronald Reagans about him.

The Irish intelligentsia would be horrified by such a prospect, but if Kenny could match Reagan's achievement in making an America which had lost confidence in itself feel proud once again, that would be something.

A GALLIC SPAT

Honeymoons are inevitably short-lived affairs. Attention swiftly turned to Enda's first EU summit where the veracity of Mr Kenny's special relationship with Angela Merkel and what it might bring for us would be tested.

Sadly, things did not go according to script. Mr Kenny strutted in like a cocky gunslinger and, in what would famously be termed "the Gallic spat", he was chewed up by a French cockerel called Sarkozy over Ireland's corporation tax rate.

This tax rate might have been higher in real terms than that of the French, but it made for a convenient target when it came to softening up any mendicant Paddy-style aspiration to burn the bond-holders.

The even worse news was that Angela didn't seem to know Enda terribly well. Mr Kenny was learning the hard way that when it came to protecting the taxpayers' money, Germany has only interests, not friends.

Significantly, though Kenny had been softened up, he still left the room on his own two feet. That EU summit had been a test of fire that had left him with a few scorch-marks, but he had survived and with that came some grudging respect. It was more than Biffo had ever secured.

ROBBING PRIVATE SECTOR PENSIONS

The honeymoon such as it was certainly ended after the Government's jobs initiative. In a mirror of the performance of the Government in many other areas, this had declined from a budget all the way down risibly, to an initiative.

The salad days of promising billions for New Era-style infrastructure and of burning the bond-holders were over. Instead we were now going to pay our debts (or rather the gambling losses of our banks) in full and get a damp squib of a jobs initiative.

It would get even worse as a downbeat Noonan, reading from his script with trembling hands, announced that the less-than-brave new world would be funded by a raid on private sector pensions.

A Government already getting far too close for our good to the public sector which it had promised to reform in Opposition, claimed that it had lived up to its pre-election promises.

But, as the famous five-point plan disappeared into the same misty horizon where the Fianna and the Tuatha de Danann now reside, it was hard to avoid the impression they were living up to the letter rather than the spirit of their promises.

WAIT, THE LOVE AFFAIR IS BACK ON

Prior to the failed coup of the political aristocrats, Leo Varadkar had, with unintentional condescension, noted that Enda, if he lost the Fine Gael leadership, would be a shoo-in for a grand non-too challenging task -- like being Minister for Foreign Affairs.

In a strange way, the visits of Obama and the Queen confirmed this analysis. Those moving moments where the Queen put to bed centuries of conflict in a single sentence about "being able to bow to the past and not be bound" and the visceral excitement at Obama in College Green and Moneygall, were dominated by the visitors.

However, Kenny could hardly be blamed for basking in their sunlight as the Taoiseach's mannered gentility and understated charm went no short way towards ensuring the events were as successful as they were.

Some begrudgers noted that there is more to the Taoiseach's job than meeting, greeting and cheerleading. But, for a country which, after the long winter of Cowen, desperately needed days of sunlight and the sense that we were not just some failed state, Kenny delivered this in spades.

THE CLOYNE SPEECH

One of the curious things about being a Taoiseach is that, unlike that perennially hunted creature known as the leader of the Opposition, you really only need to say three or four interesting things a year to survive.

Mr Kenny certainly did that when it came to the Cloyne report. During previous debates on clerical abuse, the ever deferential Mr Cowen had almost apologised to the Church for annoying it with the lawyers.

Kenny, however, having carefully gauged just how wounded his prey might be, issued a scathing attack on the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism of a Vatican whose response to Ireland's sexual abuse crisis was informed by the gimlet eye of Vatican canon lawyers.

Technically some of the critique may have been incorrect, but in terms of moral force it was devastating and utterly accurate. For one brief moment, it almost appeared that we had accidentally elected a straight-talking Taoiseach and Government who were not afraid to take on vested interests.

The reality would be somewhat more compromised.

MR GILMORE TRIES TO SURFACE.... AND DROWNS AGAIN

There was to be a curious epilogue to the Cloyne speech which encapsulated the odd curate's egg-style performance of the Labour leader. Rather like the small dog that starts barking when the big one finishes, Eamon Gilmore decided that Ireland would close its embassy to the Vatican.

The decision should have worked but, astonishingly, it was turned against its own maker when FG revolted, and his own party split over what was described by one of Mr Gilmore's own TDs as a 'final solution' style attitude to the Church.

Though Labour's Reverend Mother retained his dignity and the shutters stayed shut, one could hardly blame him for being puzzled by the contrasting reactions.

The problem perhaps was that whilst Mr Kenny's attack was more careful than it looked, it was authentic and came from the heart. Mr Gilmore's decision, in contrast, was merely opportunistic.

HOW WORDS MEAN WHAT I WANT THEM TO MEAN

In retrospect, Roscommon looks like the smallest and most common of white lies. All too often politicians get on the stump at an election, promise the divil and all, reverse engines after the event, and when challenged, use the Bart Simpson "no-one saw me do it, you can't prove anything" excuse.

The bad news for Enda was that when he tried that well-worn trick over Roscommon General Hospital, the unfortunate nature of modern communications meant the Taoiseach was caught cold, bellowing at an excited crowd about how he would defend the aforementioned institution to the death.

In truth, the whole episode cost Enda little more than an unwanted backbencher, some of his dignity and the reputation he had carefully cultivated of being the only politician outside of George Washington who had never told a lie.

The problem was, of course, after all that pre-election talk about how FF's duplicity with truth had cheapened the State, Roscommon was, when taken in tandem with all those promises about tough decisions, one of a number of examples of how suddenly a terrible smell of FF was coming off Enda.

TWO REFERENDUMS AND A PRESIDENTIAL DEBACLE

Life, as John Lennon warned us, is something that happens when you're busy making other plans. It was certainly something that happened to a FG party that had been making excited plans to cement its dominant position in Irish politics with that coveted Aras slot.

As heavyweights like Pat Cox, John Bruton and Mairead McGuinness circled a party that was anxious to recapture a little of the electoral stardust, it was as if the horror show of the Austin Currie era had never existed.

And then, in what was described as the triumph of the backbench 'turnips', FG got Gay Mitchell.

As Enda engaged in his typical trick of backing slowly away from bad news, the only thing that spared Fine Gael's blushes was the triumph of Michael D and the chaotic colourful nature of a campaign which resembled a cross between the American satirical film Wag the Dog, Fawlty Towers and The Thick of It.

Nothing, though, could hide the embarrassment when the combined charms of Brendan Howlin and Alan Shatter sank a Dail Inquiries referendum that had been presented to the electorate in a dreadfully undercooked state.

The fusion of arrogance and incompetence which persuaded the electorate to vote down the possibility of a referendum into the banks had an eerie scent of FF surrounding it. The honeymoon was definitely over.

A RIGHT PAIR OF ARISTOCRATS

During that initial iconoclastic phase, there had been great talk within the Cabinet about how accountability would be exercised amongst those senior civil service mandarins.

In the whispering corridors of Leinster House, we were told heads would be chopped and over-mighty civil servant aristocrats trimmed down to size. The reality was captured more acutely by a serendipitous event which occurred after the retirement of the Secretary General Dermot McCarthy.

Mr McCarthy, lest we forget, was the 'cardinal' who had been the eminence gris behind delights such as social partnership and benchmarking. After the departure of Biffo, he had for a time been the spectre in the building. By the time of his retirement, though, all that unpleasantness had been forgotten, to the extent that a 'lavish spread' was laid on for a party of 200 in Government Buildings.

As all of the great and good, from Cabinet ministers to the AG and even Ed Mulhall from RTE attended, it was as though nothing had ever changed. The boys, all of them, were back in town.

At the spread, apparently without recognising the irony, Eamon Gilmore said of Enda Kenny's absence from the fond farewell that only a Connacht final or an EU summit could have kept Enda away. The summit was, believe it or not, on the EU debt crisis.

Afterwards, it was carefully noted Mr €700,000 McCarthy had paid for the spread. The claim was inaccurate. In fact, the taxpayer, one way or another, had footed the bill.

A CARDIFF CODICIL

Mr McCarthy was not the only refugee from the Cowen era who would leave the public service purring. Kevin Cardiff, who had played a critical, and not very good, role in Ireland's banking crisis had been rewarded for his contribution to getting Ireland where it is today by becoming Secretary General of the Department of Finance.

Mr Cardiff, though, was a bit of a revenant from times past who was also taking a considerable degree of sheen off the new brave new world. The problem alas was what to do, for even if you have no confidence in a senior mandarin, it would be terribly vulgar to just fire the man.

Then, joy of joys, a fine fat sinecure in the EU Court of Auditors, that had been filled by some FF nonentity, appeared. Mr Cardiff's failure to spot the emerging banking crisis meant he was apparently perfectly qualified for the post.

For a moment, there was a dangerous wobble as it emerged that the Department of Finance had failed to spot a €3.6bn error in the national accounts despite repeated warnings from the NTMA. The European Parliament Committee rebelled over the prospect of having what they perceived to be some dud pawned off on them. Mr Kenny and Mr Howlin praised Mr Cardiff to the skies and drove the appointment through in the teeth of public anger.

Mr Cardiff, meanwhile, established an inquiry into the affair and scarpered off to Europe before its conclusions were presented. He had learnt well from his many years working with Fianna Fail.

Sadly, the going-away party was a substantially less lavish bash than that enjoyed by Dermot McCarthy. Three dejected ministers and a few Finance officials sipped insipidly on a couple of bottles of vino and nibbled peanuts.

The new lot had apparently learnt, just like FF, that optics really is everything.

IT'S REFORM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

Even this Government realised that it had inherited a public service that was a byword for incompetence and a level of greed at its top that verged on the territory of corruption.

On his arrival into office, Mr Kenny, with the sort of determined venom secured by many long years in Opposition, swiftly booted the public sector unions out of Government Buildings. Then, as with so many other aspects of this government, we waited, very patiently, to hear its ideas on reform.

When they arrived via Brendan Howlin's public sector reform document, it was clear the social partners had been tipped the wink and the nod to let them know they were more than welcome to trot back to their old seats in the parlour via the side entrance.

It was extraordinary enough that a public sector reform document did not contain a proposal for a single cut in civil service pay.

The extent, however, of the renewal of the special relationship between the public sector unions, who had just about nudged Labour into government, and their captive political partners, was epitomised by a priestly rebuke by the Tanaiste (remember him) of the "vulgar" campaigns of "vilification" of a public sector which apparently is informed by a higher work "ethic".

The implicit message to the private sector Croppies when it came to any serious reform was a simple one of 'lie down' from a Government that increasingly resembled the lazy inheritors of a bad franchise, who decide that since it would be too much hassle to strip down the kitchen and start again, their better option would be to just mop the place a bit more often and hope for the best.

BLAMING FIANNA FAIL IS RUNNING OUT OF ROAD

Michael Noonan's reputation as the song-and-dance man of Opposition who seized the ball in the final quarter of the election run-up and delivered victory to Mr Kenny meant that, even despite the less than convincing omens, his budget was keenly anticipated.

First budgets can be occasions when new administrations make definitive statements about the radical nature of their intentions. This had certainly been the case with figures such as John Bruton, (even though it hadn't worked terribly well) and the contrasting figures of Ray MacSharry and Charlie McCreevy.

No-one was excessively optimistic on this occasion, for the minister's brave new world had been crashing into a lot of obstacles. Mr Noonan had restructured the Irish banking system and secured a reduction in the interest rates, but the first act had followed a template set out by Brian Lenihan and the second achievement had been secured on the back of the Greek crisis.

When it came to other key areas, though, burning bond-holders had evolved into a prompt payments-style relationship with Anglo Irish Bank, whilst the reality of the supplicant minister's position within Europe had been epitomised by his submissive ministrations to the cheeks of Christine Lagarde.

Meanwhile, when it came to hidden sharks such as mortgage debt, the position of Mr Noonan resembled the "Careful now/down with that sort of thing" line on foreign films taken by Father Ted and Dougal. The minister had also glared at Nama with the suspicion of a principal squinting at a group of rough boys sneaking behind the pre-fabs for a break-time smoke. But the cautious minister had done little else.

Still, one would have thought that the first budget to be delivered by a Fine Gael minister in a quarter of a century would have meant that the country's rural boutiques would be cleared of stock as the celebratory tribe prepared for their moment of triumph.

Instead, the deserted car-parks and empty bars of the Dail bore a closer resemblance to the Marie Celeste. They were right as well for despite all his wit and natural intelligence, it swiftly became clear Michael Noonan was a man with very little to say and who was spending as long as he could saying nothing so it would not become apparent. One supposes though that being bound, gagged and tied to the train-tracks by a Troika of villains is not conducive to rhetoric.

Neither, too, was the dumb austerity of student charges, child benefit cuts, health insurance increases, household charges, school transport fees, Vat increases and the savaging of a capital budget that might create real jobs for troubled mortgage holders, so that the lump sum payments to retiring, already overpaid teachers, could be made.

Reality had finally bitten, the teeth marks were deep and worst of all, that most cherished of all the old reliables -- blaming Fianna Fail -- was rapidly running out of road now that you're in charge, Michael.

YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE. WAIT, YOU ARE

Enda may have famously said on the night of his election victory that "Paddy likes to know the story" but he waited an awful long time before deciding to tell us his version in that long-awaited State of the Nation address.

Then when the Taoiseach got his chance, he immediately flunked telling us the full story. Instead, a nation whose prime vice is irresponsibility got its collective tummy tickled via the totally inaccurate claim: "You are not responsible."

In fact, we were, and being truthful about it would have helped Mr Noonan's attempt to get us to swallow the castor oil a lot more had that particular truth been told.

The rest resembled the old biblical saw about the evils of being "neither hot nor cold" and was essentially spat out by the public.

In fairness to Kenny, it was a speech that was all the better for being plainly said and he did not mince his words on the ongoing severity of the crisis. Like Cosgrave, the Irish politician whom he most closely resembles, Kenny appeared to have finally realised that in this febrile state at least, times of crisis are not best dealt with in fancy words.

We could though have done without the display of ego at the close where the dreaded "I" word made too many appearances -- as in "I want to be the Taoiseach who retrieves our national sovereignty" -- for comfort.

In fairness to Kenny, the case for honesty was hardly enhanced by the hysterical response to the madness in Davos after Kenny noted "we all went mad borrowing".

The Taoiseach's analysis was not entirely accurate, but in an imperfect world 'close but no cigar' is as good as it generally gets.

It certainly is a measure of the sustained adolescence of Irish political discourse that when a politician speaks honestly he is called an idiot. But that perhaps is an issue that says more about us than Mr Kenny.

KNOWING ME KNOWING YOU, AHA!

The excitement of seeing Enda walk to work -- and my, but weren't we easily pleased in this Government's first days -- is long gone. Looking at its first year, if the Government's fortunes were calligraphed on a hospital chart, we would see occasional peaks followed by gentle but prolonged downward inclines. But that's OK too for we are realists.

Perhaps the most curious feature of the Government a year into office is its relative solidity. There are bickering backbenchers fighting over Croke Park, rural schools and rosary beads. A couple of TDs and one junior minister have jumped, but the top tier, in spite of a record that is at best speckled, is sound.

The cut of their cloth is utterly conservative but it suits their instincts and, more importantly still, it has secured an uneasy truce with a traumatised electorate that would settle for the most part with things simply not getting any worse.

The problem, alas, is that they will. There is the mortgage tsunami; the illogicality of a fiscal policy that takes money out of a contracting, credit-starved economy; the ambivalence of Croke Park on the issue of real reform; whilst 'yours for a fiver' Phil faces real difficulties in the arena of household and septic tank charges.

But, the core of the Cabinet -- Burton, Howlin, Rabbitte, Hogan, Quinn and Varadkar -- are level-headed and still ball-hungry. In spite of their U-turns they still retain, perhaps unwisely, some modicum of public trust.

And strangely enough, the star of them all is Enda. He still suffers badly from comparisons with that comic anti-hero Alan 'Knowing me knowing you. Aha!' Partridge. But in a strange way Enda's Partridge-like incapacity to recognise the difference between triumph and abject defeat, and his capacity, like Partridge, in the wake of defeat, to dust himself off and continue as though nothing bad has happened may be his, and the Government's, strongest suit.

Whether waving gently at the world will achieve anything for us is a different matter.

Sunday Independent

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