News Shane Coleman

Friday 21 October 2016

Election row was a fiasco - but it's a story the public will soon forget

Published 13/10/2015 | 02:30

'What is 'clear' is he [Enda Kenny] and his parliamentary party, not least Finance Minister Michael Noonan [pictured] wanted a November polling day'
'What is 'clear' is he [Enda Kenny] and his parliamentary party, not least Finance Minister Michael Noonan [pictured] wanted a November polling day'

Enda Kenny doesn't have 10,000 men, but he does have almost 70 TDs and last week, just like the Grand Old Duke of York, he marched them up to the top of the election hill and then on Sunday did an about-turn and marched them down again.

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In the process, the Taoiseach has been left looking indecisive, weak and, to put it bluntly, not very clever or competent.

The whole affair has been a fiasco for Fine Gael. Kenny can claim all he likes that he has been "consistently clear" on holding the election in Spring 2016. Nobody buys it for a second. He had four chances last week to rule out an early election and didn't take them.

What is 'clear' is he and his parliamentary party, not least Finance Minister Michael Noonan, wanted a November polling day.

If today's Budget is well-received - which, given it's a €3bn giveaway election-buying package seems likely - an early trip to the Áras to seek a dissolution of the Dáil would be inevitable.

But Labour has gone and put a spanner in the works.

The Government's re-election pitch is going to be centred on 'stability' - in contrast, they will say, to the 'chaos' of the crash and what might lie ahead if some of the hard left or Independents get power. It's been road-tested with focus groups and found to be a winning message.

The problem is the 'stability' line would ring more than a little hollow if the two coalition partners had daggers drawn over the election date. Kenny belatedly realised over the weekend that it was Labour's way or no way and finally moved to kill the early election talk.

But how did he not realise it would come to this? Nobody should have been in any doubt that Labour wanted to wait until spring for the election. The party is still struggling in the polls and, rightly or wrongly, believes its best chance of gaining ground is to give the electorate as much time as possible to feel the positive impact of the economic recovery.

The party was never going to welcome a November poll. Technically, of course, it's the Taoiseach's prerogative to call the election date. But in practice, in a coalition government, the views of the leader of the junior partner are taken into account. Particularly when the intention is for the two parties to have a voting pact in the election.

The attitude among Fine Gael TDs to suggestions Labour might not be happy with a November date was of the 'they'll get used to it' variety. But that was only true to a point. Of course, Labour would have had to suck it up and get on with it. However, the underlying resentment at being bulldozed over would have been impossible to hide. The electorate would have sniffed it a mile off. So much for stability.

The inevitable collapse of the Banking Inquiry in the event of an early election was also always going to be brought into play, particularly given the chair of the inquiry is a Labour TD. Kenny and his strategists had thought of this. But their spin - that the inquiry had effectively done what it was set up to do via its public hearings - suggested they underestimated its significance.

Labour didn't and played it for all it was worth last week. All of this should have been obvious to the Fine Gael leadership. That's not to say they shouldn't have gone for the November date. There were, and remain, compelling reasons for an early poll. Fine Gael TDs also clearly wanted it, pointing to the recent postal strike as evidence of how the Government could be held to ransom in the coming months if they held on.

Kenny and Co should have either decided to go for it - and in the process ignore Labour's protestations. Or, if they felt in the interests of harmony and stability they couldn't go against the junior coalition's party's wishes, then they should never have pushed the issue in the first place.

Instead of those two options, they put out the idea of an early poll without fully thinking it through and then, faced with a Labour revolt, basically bottled it.

It's laughable to hear Fine Gael sources indicating anger at Alan Kelly's implication that the Taoiseach would be dishonourable if he went to the country early. What did they expect? That Labour should meekly roll over as FG rode rough-shod over its viewpoint?

Kelly's brusque style is not to everyone's taste, but politics is a game for big boys and girls and he was well within his rights to play whatever cards he had. Instead of being cross with Labour figures, Fine Gael should look in the mirror. Its leadership made a hames of it.

The only saving grace for Kenny is that this was largely a story for the political bubble.

The electorate, unlike TDs and political journalists, generally couldn't care less when the election is. They are far more worried about what today's Budget will mean for their pockets. That should limit the fall-out for Kenny and Fine Gael, despite the serious questions the affair raises about their competence and street smarts.

Irish Independent

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