Monday 29 December 2014

Steely Burton should keep Kenny guessing on whether she would bring down Coalition

Published 03/07/2014 | 02:30

Joan Burton. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Joan Burton. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Imagine the first encounter: Enda Kenny sits down with Joan Burton as Tanaiste designate. How the world has changed. Both carry baggage into the meeting. An undeniable undercurrent of the past three years has been the latent hostility and obvious mistrust of the Minister for Social Protection.

A coterie of senior government ministers closest to Eamon Gilmore barely concealed their contempt for her open disloyalty and alter ego within Labour's leadership – at the top, but not party to it. She wasn't nicknamed "Moan" and "Moaney Joaney" by the media, just cabinet insiders. Original exclusion from the Economic Management Council, despite being elected deputy leader and opposition Finance spokesperson, grated with her.

Enda's loyalties lay with Gilmore. The narrative that Joan was a loose cannon and an independent republic will be instantly ditched.

Joan Burton deserves every credit. Gilmore loyalists firmly believed she would never lead the Labour Party. They're left in the lurch now. She has skillfully stood her ground. For any woman, especially a mother, to become a party leader requires extra talent. She withstood defeat in the 1997 general election. Subsequent to being Junior Minister for overseas aid at the Department of Foreign Affairs, she battled back from the local impact of Socialist TD Joe Higgins.

Despite austerity cuts, as minister she succeeded in protecting welfare budgets and payment rates, while always managing to keep within annual estimate parameters. While she has a tendency towards verbosity, she exudes self-confidence and a dignified demeanour.

The bedrock of any coalition is the personal relationship between party leaders. Those that gelled and endured include: Liam Cosgrave and Brendan Corish; Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney. Fractious tensions between Albert Reynolds and both Dessie O'Malley and Dick Spring resulted in sudden collapse of two administrations. Mutual trust and a joint collective sense of destiny are essential characteristics of survival. The onus is on the leader of the largest party to take the view that any administration success, even if heaping credit on the smaller party, results in a bigger net gain for Fine Gael.

An initial understanding, despite the procedural possibility, that no matter will be pushed through Cabinet on a vote (10 FG – five Labour) can underpin the necessity to reach a consensus on all issues. This prerequisite enshrines principles of meaningful equal respect. If Kenny tries to fake a parity of esteem, he will flounder.

The opening assumption by Fine Gael is that the new Labour leadership will want to avoid any prospect of an imminent general election. Therefore acquiescence is expected until there's a prospect of recovery in the opinion polls for Labour. The biggest mistake Gilmore made was that FG always believed he wouldn't risk bringing the Government down.

Their reliance on expectations that he would always blink in a crisis meant his authority was undermined from the get-go.

Burton has to play shrewder poker. Irrespective of short-term consequences, she has to pick an issue which she'll push all the way. Circumstances where Labour could retain 20 seats if it precipitated a general election or by staying in office would so undermine Labour's credibility as to be unacceptable.

It could either be an austerity measure too far or standing by a minister's tenure after debacles. If she gambles and wins, she'll procure a silver bullet of leverage. Kenny won't readily risk loss of office in any game of electoral chance. Since the Local/European election results and onset of Labour leadership contests, the Government has been error-strewn. Hubris has reigned. No need for the Taoiseach to personally wade into full-frontal attack on Fianna Fail's Niall Collins' woes relating to an ill-advised letter to a judge – any tribal FG Rottweiler could vent the same point.

The whiff of blatant political jobbery in certain recent appointments to Bord Na Mona is reminiscent of the dying days of Cowen's administration. We were promised new departure from party hacks being preferred. Elaborate procedures were put in place for independent expertise to apolitically apply for such appointments. Not enough has changed. Kenny's tetchy confrontation at FG's parliamentary party with backbencher Brendan Griffin also suggests the smiling facade is slipping. His closest advisers maintain that he is utterly exhausted. Maybe so, but if he maintains this boorish, surly attitude of authority with Joan, he is doomed. Two top priorities: immediate soiree to include their respective spouses, Pat Carroll and Fionnuala Kenny, who are probably both leaders' savviest closest advisers, is an essential prerequisite to group harmony.

Kenny and Burton must also establish a set of personnel mechanisms to defuse rows; probably Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin on budgetary issues; and respective programme managers/senior civil servants to act as a clearing house on cabinet memoranda, appointments and minutia of policy. Such filters will mean that only the knottiest intractable problems are elevated to their level. Given likely reshuffle changes, each leader probably has to create a new kitchen cabinet of closest Republican guards.

Will it all work? The likelihood is dubious. Past experience of coalitions nearing polling day tends to indicate that when the tide starts to go out, the public is reluctant to return. Maybe there's nothing Joan can do to reverse Labour's decline. Old Labour has retaken charge from the centralist disciplined style of Democratic Left/ Workers Party, so Kenny can expect a bumpier ride.

Horse trading begins with Big Phil going to Europe in return for Labour getting the Jobs ministry; feminisation and rejuvenation of ministerial posts; new Attorney General. Wisest counsel suggests a considered deferral of new energised programme for government until autumn.

Ivan Yates

Irish Independent

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