News Shane Coleman

Saturday 30 August 2014

Kenny won't silence his critics and end the crisis with woolly interviews and high-fives

Published 28/06/2014 | 02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Peter Cavanagh
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Peter Cavanagh

THE good news is Enda Kenny has finally sat down and done a major set-piece interview that attempts to get to the core of his beliefs and vision for the future.

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The bad news is that he was talking – without any great insight, it has to be said – about God and religion.

Instead of a barnstorming rallying of the country after six months of drift in Government, we got an extremely woolly, and an often toe-curling, 38-minute interview with Gay Byrne on 'The Meaning of Life'.

One of the cogent points made by Kenny during the interview was his assertion that "in this job, in politics generally, if you don't have a sense of where you want to be, of where you want to lead the country, well then I think you shouldn't be in it in the first place".

Well said. The problem is that right now we don't have any sense of where the Taoiseach wants to lead the country.

Enda Kenny has been in the top job for around 1,200 days now. For the first roughly 1,000 of those, we've witnessed all the man's strengths – his upbeat, 'can-do' persona; his sharp political instinct; his enormous work rate; his ability to sell lreland overseas.

For the past 200 days or so, however, it's Kenny's weaknesses that have mainly been on display. Stripped of the discipline and the certitude provided by the troika, and the drive to 'get out of the bailout', the Taoiseach and his Government have been directionless and clueless.

Plan A has been completed; there's no Plan B.

The Government has reacted to the enormous kicking it got in the local elections by firstly promising to ease back on austerity and, secondly, arranging a series of soft-focus media opportunities for the Taoiseach, of which the Gaybo interview is only the most recent.

Neither approach is going to work.

The post-election narrative coming from the Coalition is an extremely risky one. Rowing back on the medical cards was, politically speaking, the only course of action. But raising expectations of an easier Budget and an end to austerity is dangerous.

For starters, it's still very much open to question whether the Government will be in a position to limit the budgetary adjustments to €1bn or less. The international markets – and by extension Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin – will not tolerate any row-back on the plan to bring the Budget deficit down to 3pc of GNP by 2015. We won't know what level of cuts will be required to keep to that target until shortly before Budget day – it will depend on the performance of the economy in the first eight months of the year.

But it's not just about the risk of over-promising. Fine Gael and Labour are playing completely into Sinn Fein's hands with their constant references to 'giving something back' to the public.

Whether they mean to or not, the clear implication of such statements is that the Government unnecessarily overdid the austerity. And, by extension, that reinforces the Sinn Fein line that there was an alternative way out of the crisis, when there clearly wasn't.

The message that should be coming from the Government is: 'The medicine delivered over the past three years has been horrible, but absolutely unavoidable to save the economy. And, awful as the medicine has been, it is starting to work. And to risk all the progress made in that time would be hugely irresponsible and dangerous to the economic recovery. We will not do that'.

That's not an easy message to sell. But it certainly won't be done if the Taoiseach insists on choosing soft-focus media opportunities such as 'The Meaning of Life', visiting the troops in Lebanon during a Dail term, or high-fiving and dancing along to Pharrell Williams' 'Happy' at Bloom.

Given the crisis facing the Government – and it is a genuine crisis – that's just not going to cut it.

There's actually a decent story to tell of economic recovery, but right now it's not being told. Instead the debate has been ceded to those promising an easier way out of the mess.

To change that, Kenny needs to start taking some chances and lead from the front, something he – and those advising him – have been particularly reluctant to do.

What's needed is a Churchillian 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat' approach. Take the fight directly to Sinn Fein and its seductive, but utterly unrealistic, promises to abolish the property tax and reverse cuts.

The once-silenced doubts have started to re-emerge about Enda Kenny's suitability for the job of Taoiseach. The next 18 months will determine whether those doubts are merited.

Such is the volatility and disaffection among the electorate, there is no guarantee of success. But better surely to go down fighting than high-fiving. Less 'Meaning of Life' and more 'facts of political and economic life' is urgently required.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the 'Sunday Show' on Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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