Monday 24 November 2014

Lise Hand: Coolness between Enda and Eamon is a sign of normal politics

Published 21/01/2014 | 02:30

18/7/2013; An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, TD and Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, TD
18/7/2013; An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, TD and Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, TD
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Taoiseach Enda Kenny

The Taoiseach hogged the limelight when the country exited the bailout last month

So there are ominous rumblings that a few weeds have blown into Enda and Eamon's rose garden, and that the hitherto harmonious relationship between the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste has hit its first real rocky patch.

It seems that tensions have arisen between Fine Gael and Labour over a series of issues, from the pylons controversy and the setting-up costs of Irish Water to the handling of the country's exit from the bailout programme, which has led to a series of spats within the Coalition.

Well, no surprise there. For if ever there was a clear indicator that things are normalising in Irish politics, it's the fact that a few rounds of sniper fire are being audibly exchanged between coalition partners.

Tensions between parties in coalition are a sign of business as usual. It's an indication that the whole raison d'etre for two-party government is working - that one party will provide checks and balances on the other. It's no coincidence that the Irish electorate repeatedly rejects the reality of single-party rule - a mindset expertly and effectively exploited by the Progressive Democrats in the 2002 General Election with their 'One-Party Government - No Thanks!' poster campaign.

There have been shotgun political weddings such as Dessie O'Malley and Charlie Haughey, and Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring. And there have been extremely cosy alliances such as the coalition headed by Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney.

And for almost three years now, there has been the super-stable partnership of Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, who have managed to present a staunchly united front even as skin and hair flew within their parties over various controversies since the Fine Gael-Labour Government was formed in March 2011.

But then, what the two men have been running since was effectively a national government which came into power commanding a whopping parliamentary majority of over 60 votes, untroubled by narrow voting margins in the Dail.

However, the Coalition was also essentially a government hamstrung not by the opposition, but by the troika's Memorandum of Understanding - a document which essentially removed large swathes of decision-making when it came to the Budgets and shaping fiscal policies.

The MoU was both a blessing and a curse for Fine Gael and Labour - instead of both parties blaming each other for unpopular austerity measures, they could simply point accusing fingers at the deal hammered out by the previous Fianna Fail-Green coalition and the troika and declare their own hands were tied by it.

But if government is a game of two halves, the end of the bailout on December 15 blew the whistle on the first half - and now the second has kicked off, in every sense of the word.

With the reins of power now firmly back in the hands of the Coalition (for better or for worse), with positive indications that the country has edged away from the perilous economic abyss and with key local elections looming in May, the united-front-in-the-teeth-of-catastrophe stand is starting to wobble.

Labour know all too well the fate which awaits junior coalition parties at the poll who are judged to have failed in walking that precarious line between maintaining a stable government while keeping the bigger party from running amok.

Things looked particularly bleak for Eamon Gilmore's party last October, when one opinion poll placed it at a 25-year low of 6pc. And although the last poll put Labour at a more reassuring 12pc, the local elections are still a worrying prospect.

Since taking power, the party has lost a whopping 29 councillors, about 10pc of its total number, with most citing unhappiness with Labour in government as the reason for their departure.

And so Labour - also irritated by the public perception that Fine Gael has been busily fixing the economy while it obsesses over issues such as abortion legislation and gay marriage - has begun to kick out more openly.

"The tensions have always been there between the two parties, but now they're more out in the open," said one senior Labour source.

For Labour has - somewhat belatedly - realised that visibility is the key, and that Enda Kenny and his party are adept at taking the bouquets while passing the brickbats on to their junior partners. For instance, the Taoiseach hogged the spotlight when the country exited the bailout last month with his national address, while the Tanaiste cooled his heels in the wings.

And so the voices of backbenchers from both parties, but especially Labour, which were muted during the era of 'due duces, una voce', are becoming more vocal. For instance, last weekend Labour MEP Emer Costello - who's in a tough fight to hold her seat in the May elections - declared: "If you wanted the kind of austerity that they had in Greece and Cyprus , if you had a single-party Fine Gael government, that's the kind of austerity that you would have had," she said.

"But we did actually manage to mitigate the worst."

There's likely to be plenty more where that came from as the party struggles to assert itself and convince the electorate that the Labour tail can on occasion wag the Fine Gael dog.

It is three years ago this week since the last coalition spectacularly fell apart and amid the shambles the Greens announced they were pulling out of government. But it was too little too late, and they were swept away by a nation of vengeful voters.

The balance between party survival and government stability is the tricky tightrope which Eamon Gilmore must negotiate for Labour to avoid a similar fate. And Enda must surely know that any coolness between them isn't personal. It's just political business.

Irish Independent

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