Wednesday 26 October 2016

They can move the deckchairs all they like – it won't get them out of this crisis

Published 09/04/2014 | 02:30

The strain of his position is beginning to show for Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins
The strain of his position is beginning to show for Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins

Where did it all go wrong? All the signs point to serious and rapid improvements in the economy, yet the cracks are really starting to show in the Coalition.

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There's a general crankiness around, with ministers publicly and privately sniping at each other and a fair bit of jostling for position – and not just between the two coalition parties.

It's even affecting Enda Kenny. He generally wears the responsibilities of office extraordinarily lightly. But the strain is starting to show.

And that's only serving to highlight his weaknesses – one of which is a habit of occasionally saying things that are, well, a little silly. The Taoiseach's decision to digress and passionately invoke Grainne Mhaol (when asked a question on the Commission of Inquiry) on the way into a cabinet meeting yesterday morning begged to be parodied. At least one radio station duly obliged. It's not the first time it has happened in recent weeks.

As the Fine Gael-Labour coalition of 40 years ago can testify – it was relentlessly sent up by the 'Hall's Pictorial Weekly' TV programme – this is dangerous territory for any government. Four months ago, with the exit of the troika, Kenny and his Coalition looked untouchable. Re-election in 2016 seemed almost a formality. That was then. Not even the fortunes of Arsenal – top of the English Premier league in December but now in danger of slipping to fifth – have plummeted as much in the interim period. Cabinet ministers may reject the notion, but the Coalition is in crisis. What other term can you use for a government that, based on the most recent opinion poll, has lost 60pc of its support base since the general election?

Those poll results are hardly a surprise. It's been one public relations disaster after another in 2014, most – though not all – originating with Justice Minister Alan Shatter. After seemingly sleepwalking through the early months of the year, when it ceded control of the news agenda, the Government has finally woken up to the fact it is in trouble.

The danger now is they will over-react to their problems. There couldn't be a starker contrast between the Coalition being dragged kicking and screaming to inquiries into the Maurice McCabe dossier on garda malpractice, and the allegations of GSOC being bugged – and its alacrity in setting up an incredibly comprehensive inquiry into the garda tapes.

The cabinet decision yesterday to include a specific investigation into garda handling of the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder case, while welcome, has raised eyebrows. It smacks of an inquiry within an inquiry. Judge Nial Fennelly will have quite a job delivering his report within the 12-month deadline.

Less surprising was the decision to include the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and the failure of a key letter from the Commissioner to reach the Justice Minister for over two weeks. Both matters could surely be adequately handled by an Oireachtas Committee. But including them in the Commission of Investigation neatly ensures they'll be taken off the political agenda for at least a year. Shatter, though, is far from off the hook. The Guerin report into the McCabe dossier is due in the coming weeks. As is Judge Cooke's inquiry into the alleged bugging at GSOC. The odds on him remaining in Justice beyond the autumn reshuffle remain long.

All the noises coming from Government in recent days suggest that a planned cabinet reshuffle might be more comprehensive than anticipated. We'll see.

Back in December when the Coalition was riding high, the experience of ministers such as Noonan, Howlin, Quinn, Rabbitte and Shatter was being cited as an advantage. Now, the perception is of a jaded Government that has run out of ideas post bailout.

There will be changes. Phil Hogan seems certain to go to Europe, and apart from Shatter, Ruairi Quinn and Jimmy Deenihan look vulnerable. But history tells us that, far from solving problems, reshuffles have a habit of making them worse.

A move by Eamon Gilmore and Brendan Howlin to swap ministries, as is being suggested, could certainly prove that point. The Noonan-Howlin axis has been crucial for the Coalition. Tinkering with that would be hugely risky.

More than a moving of deckchairs, the Government needs a plan of action to stop the sense of drift that has taken hold. That has to come from the top. Enda Kenny surprised everyone by how well he took to the job of Taoiseach. But he arguably faces a greater challenge now. The discipline imposed by the bailout is gone. Plan A is finished. Where's plan B? The economy is showing it can survive and prosper without the troika. The Coalition, so far at least, hasn't done so.


Irish Independent

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