independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

John Drennan: Wanted - Irish premier, clear strategy a must

The political court of Enda Kenny, with his presidential style, is rapidly crumbling, writes John Drennan

In a measure of how the political climate is changing, the view of the philosophical donkey, Eeyore, that the strange thing about accidents is that you never know you're going to have one until it is happening, has become this Government's central template.

And though he has managed to steer clear of most of the pot-holes, the times are a changing particularly for a Taoiseach who is going to have to redefine his political style, and soon, if he wishes to retain his current pre-eminence.

In truth, Mr Kenny's preference for a laissez-faire presidential form of governance was always slightly at odds with the Government's self-defined image of being a war-time cabinet.

There was some merit to the plan, which was undoubtedly concurred enthusiastically by his ministers, that the collective brilliance of a reforming Cabinet meant Enda should embrace being an absentee Taoiseach who would, outside of the occasional bout of waving at the people, travel the world, repairing Ireland's reputation via the same smiling, nodding and winking formula which saved Fine Gael.

It has not, alas, worked out that way, for the ministers have not been at all brilliant while saving the world has proven to be somewhat tougher than giving the kiss of life to FG.

Meanwhile, outside of the Dail, it is becoming clear an Irish State which has not had a functioning Taoiseach since the defenestration of Bertie Ahern began in 2006, needs a boss and a sociable dilettante presiding lazily over a Government whose commitment to reform has disappeared like sand in an hour-glass does not fit that job description.

Things are beginning to come asunder to such an extent that while our bright new Government of all the Grumpy Old Men (and a couple of token women too!) may not be on the rack, a lot of flyers are starting to be left in the letter-box from hopeful political undertakers.

And surprisingly, as the main pillars of the political edifice Mr Kenny built to protect his authority crumble, it is FG rather than Labour which is evolving into the weak-link of a government that believes it received a nod-and-wink from the electorate that they would be in power for at least a decade.

The sight of Dr Reilly's political feet moving ever closer to the flames may have dominated the news agenda.

But, increasingly as not-so Cute Old Phil lurches through the political landscape like a blind Frankenstein's monster in a minefield, it looks as though all of Enda's Cabinet 'picks' are not working.

So far, despite the pilgrim's progress being experienced by the much derided Personal Insolvency Bill, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has escaped relatively unscathed.

But the sense is growing, particularly with each gangland shooting, that Mr Shatter's egotistical disdain which has already seen off one Labour minister and cost the Government one critical referendum defeat, is an accident waiting to happen.

Ultimately, the Taoiseach should be more concerned by the ailing state of his two most critical political allies.

Mr Kenny's Coalition Cats-paw Eamon Gilmore has been boxed into a corner, following the self-immolation of 'our' Roisin who, as she walks through Leinster House, leaves a trail of ice behind her in the manner of a latter-day Jack Frost.

Critically, Mr Gilmore's straitened circumstances is as much of a Fine Gael as a Labour problem, for that party's 'fourmen down' status means that, as we approach the roughest, toughest Budget yet, Labour is not in a position to tolerate any further cabinet losses or Eamon will be trotting into the office to tell Enda: "Sorry, gaffer, but the lads won't wear it."

Ultimately Enda's most serious issue is Michael Noonan, for the Finance Minister is the pendulum on which this Government's survival hangs.

Enda can afford to have other ministers such as Howlin and Reilly performing in a manner that is remarkably similar to Laurel and Hardy trying to carry a grand piano up a staircase.

Noonan, in contrast is the nation's, and more importantly still, the Taoiseach's, comfort blanket.

However that elevated state, has now been challenged by that fiscal equivalent of cattle breaking into the corn, when the Finance Ministers of Germany, Finland and the Netherlands scorned the June 'game-changer' to break the link between Irish sovereign and bank debt.

To date the gnomic utterances which have seen the Finance Minister evolve into a national pacifier has worked equally well on the domestic and foreign stages.

But, should the banking deal tumble out of the sky in flames -- and who would blame Germany and the rest of the sane European countries for baulking at having to 'die in a fiscal ditch' to maintain Ireland's unique public sector pay rates? -- the lynchpin of this administration's fiscal strategy will be broken, probably beyond repair.

Back on the domestic front, the deterioration of Enda's authority is epitomised by the antics of some new FG TDs.

Now unknown entities such as Eoghan Murphy and Tony Lawlor may be little political scamps but the trouble with small children is that adults can trip over them.

The other key problem Enda has is that, like a Sixties dad trying to 'get down' with the hip-hop generation, he does not quite know how to deal with the cool, trendy cappuccino kids.

Mr Kenny cannot break their spines with vague promises of political preferment because they know there are no places available and he can't appeal to their unthinking loyalty because they have enough brains to realise they owe Enda nothing.

This means that rather like Jack Lynch in 1977, Enda has to deal with the political nightmare of free-thinking TDs.

Some might think this is a progressive thing but the fear for Mr Kenny, who must be delighted Leo, Simon, Lucinda and Brian are doing so well in their ministries, is that at some future point, like the forces of Lord Stanley in the Battle of Bosworth, the cappuccino crowd could actually hold the balance of power in the party.

That tumult may not be so far away either for FG's so far untouched core vote is increasingly disenchanted with concepts like giving mums' child benefit money to the welfare classes or the evolution of a two-tiered State where public sector pensions are protected and private sector pensions are raided to fund invisible jobs programmes.

So far a government which has become as detached from the real world in 18 months as FF was after 10 years, appears to be blithely unaware of the great discontent sweeping its way through coveted middle class voters over the accelerating destruction of their fiscal security.

Nothing epitomised the degree of their separation from the real world more than the claim by the latest home help for Dr Reilly, Alex White, that the finance ministers of Germany, Finland and Holland, were throwing 'shapes' over Enda's 'seismic' banking deal.

Alex should learn that in poker generally the guy who is throwing shapes is the fellow at the table who doesn't have any cash. And in this game, an EU elite who marked the cards they have been dealing us, knows Paddy is the bluffer.

The Taoiseach, last week, attempted to retrieve that particular scenario with a series of warnings about how he expected the EU leaders to 'stand by' their decision to ease Ireland's banking debt.

However, despite all the bravado and the nice words from the powerless President of the EU Parliament, Mr Kenny still looked terribly like the unhappy purchaser of a timeshare company demanding to see the mortgage deeds after the money has gone through.

The Government's capacity to repair the shattered Republic it inherited almost by chance is looking increasingly degraded.

It might go against all of his instincts and quite a few of his private fears, but the time has finally come for Enda Kenny to stop being a dilettante Taoiseach.

Your political court is crumbling Enda.

Indeed, it is crumbling to such an extent the Taoiseach needs to take control of the political narrative before it takes control of him, for if he doesn't, even the dream that in 2015, Enda, like Collins and the British army, (and Eamon too, mustn't forget him!) would wave goodbye to the troika and call a snap election focused on the theme of 'back the team what won us our freedom to bankrupt ourselves again' may die.

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