Jeers before cheers as Kenny feels austerity chill at Croker
IF Enda Kenny was under any illusions about the popularity of his Government, it hardly survived last Saturday evening in Croke Park.
The Taoiseach's face popped up only momentarily on the big screen during the Dublin v Cork match. But it was long enough to provoke a spontaneous and unquestionably loud outbreak of booing among the large crowd.
The message couldn't have been clearer. His Government has the biggest ever Dail majority and Kenny's performance has been largely acclaimed in the media. But austerity has taken its toll on the Coalition's standing with voters.
It might be unwise to read too much into what was arguably a knee-jerk response. Kenny is not the first senior politician to get the bird in Croker, as Bertie Ahern will testify. And the idea that it might influence him or his government will be dismissed out of hand.
But the Taoiseach wouldn't be human if he wasn't stung – and swayed – by what transpired. We all like to be loved, but public affection is the very life blood of politicians and of governments.
That need for public affection is clearly going to be a large factor in the Government's pre-budget deliberations. Over at Fianna Fail, meanwhile, Micheal Martin's problem would seem to be a lack of affection from within his own parliamentary party. Reports in yesterday's 'Sunday Independent' suggested some believe he might not be the man to lead them into the next general election.
Martin was clearly damaged by the fallout from the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill when he failed to bring TDs with him. The Anglo tapes were a painful reminder of past failures.
And, not unlike in Fine Gael, there is irritation at the centralisation of decision making "in a small clique" at the top of the party.
Martin still has the advantage of relatively decent opinion poll ratings and a national profile that none of his potential successors comes close to having. That ensures nothing will happen in advance of the local elections. But he will have to be seen to deliver in that contest.
For the coming months though, all eyes will be on the Government. And it's likely to be an uncomfortable time for all concerned.
This government's penchant for doing its business in public is unprecedented. Its two budgets to date have been very publicly fought over. All the indications are that the upcoming one will be no different and possibly worse. For weeks now Labour has been sending signals that there must be an easing off on austerity. Fine Gael figures, meanwhile, have been stressing the need for keeping with the troika programme.
Last week, we had the ludicrous sight of Fine Gael and Labour backbenchers going toe to toe on the subject through the letters page of a national newspaper. What next – government deputies contacting Joe Duffy and 'Liveline' to make their views known?
Reports yesterday suggested the differences within the Government on the Budget have widened in recent days. Officials in the departments of Finance and Public Expenditure have been emphasising their determination to have over €400m in welfare cuts next year.
Coalition insiders were quoted as saying if this happened, it could lead to the resignation of Social Protection Minister Joan Burton.
That will send alarm bells ringing for Kenny every bit as loudly as the booing he faced in Croke Park. It's doubtful his Coalition could survive the loss of Burton – such an eventuality would devastate Labour.
It's unlikely it will come to that. Burton has largely got her way in the past two budgets and the odds are she will do so again. But the fact that people close to the centre of the Government are willing, through the media, to engage in such brinkmanship shows just how frayed nerves are.
Particularly in Labour. The party has had consistently poor opinion polls. And the speculation about the formation of a new social democratic party – made up of former Labour and Independent TDs – won't soothe those jitters.
Up to now the Coalition's hands have been largely tied by the bailout programme. Labour had no choice but to swallow hard and accept the cuts.
The upcoming Budget though is different. For the first time there is some limited wiggle room on the amount to be cut. And Labour, not just Burton, seems determined to put down a marker in the hope it will resonate with a weary electorate.
The stakes have been raised considerably. The most likely outcome still is that the wily Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin will work out a compromise that keeps the Coalition sailing along. But for the first time since it took office, it's possible to envisage a scenario where the Government doesn't run its full term. The next 10 weeks will tell a lot.