Sunday 23 October 2016

Cunning Kenny must also be astute in a precarious new political world

The Government has survived its first two weeks in power, but the Taoiseach must steer the ship carefully

Eoin O'Malley

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Game on: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Tanaiste, Frances Fitgerald, talks to journalists after the Fine Gael Party meeting in Athlone Photo: Damien Eagers
Game on: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Tanaiste, Frances Fitgerald, talks to journalists after the Fine Gael Party meeting in Athlone Photo: Damien Eagers

Enda Kenny went to Washington last week, possibly as a small reward for having put together a government against the odds. He could have basked in the glories of Washington for his government's political honeymoon, but as honeymoons go this was a wet weekend in Wexford.

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That might be because this feels like a hastily arranged second marriage. We aren't inclined to be generous. And for Fine Gael, the ex-partner - Labour - having its own difficulties adjusting to single life, is lashing out.

It is blaming Fine Gael for many things, and claiming that Fine Gael had a 'privatisation agenda' for Irish Water which it had blocked.

Finian McGrath's first forays into government bore the hallmarks of the drunk uncle at the wedding. He's used to saying what he thinks, boring people with his batty views, but up to now no one really listened.

Now he's a minister, people do listen. He'll, hopefully, learn the lesson that you have to think before you speak - unless he enjoyed the publicity.

There was also a split in the family. The Independent Alliance lost a member last week, as Michael Fitzmaurice left the 'party'. It had hoped Fitzmaurice, having abstained on the vote for Taoiseach, would quietly move over to the Government benches with his colleagues. But he indicated he's staying in opposition. The loss of a TD also meant the Alliance lost an extra junior minister.

And - to push the metaphor to its limit - the Government is already breaking its vows. The programme for government made great play about how it would 'give every person equality of opportunity in a fair society'.

One of its first moves was to announce its intention to increase what a parent can gift a child without paying tax and to increase the inheritance tax thresholds - a measure also in the programme. The two hardly seem compatible; the children of the well-off will be given an extra hand out.

While lowering taxes might be laudable it's hardly what the electorate was looking for. The €75m it will cost the exchequer might be better spent on primary schools if 'equality of opportunity' is really the principal goal of the partnership government.

Part of the problem with the programme for government is that it is a mix of Fine Gael's small-state approach and the Independents' list of demands.

The whole thing isn't internally consistent. It's very long, nearly twice as long as the Labour-Fine Gael programme. It was designed to allow for a government to be formed, but might be filled with hostages to fortune - promises that can't be delivered.

The programme for government says that 'the traditional rules no longer apply'; that 'government is not about having power. It is about using power'. But when on Thursday Kenny unveiled his junior ministers it looked like the old rules were at work.

Despite having just 58 TDs to rely on, he increased the number of Ministers of State to 18. Quite why we need more junior ministers isn't clear. There are now more ministers than there are Government backbenchers.

It looked like old politics, designed to keep the parliamentary party sweet in what was the last throw of the dice for Kenny.

He announced in Washington that he intends to see out the full term as Taoiseach, but suggested he'll step down as Fine Gael leader before the next election. The uncertainty as to when an election will be held could put him under pressure within his party.

That said, he's shown himself to be more politically astute than any of his likely challengers. If he wants to hold onto power, you wouldn't bet against him.

Kenny has been criticised for having no Minister for Arts, though this probably doesn't matter much to voters or Fine Gael TDs. Anyway, a Minister for Whatever doesn't deliver much on its own - it's just a way of signalling you care.

Kenny has also taken flak for appointing so few women. He can hardly be blamed for that; only 12 of the 58 TDs on the Government benches are women, and now eight of them are ministers.

And all but one of the Independent Alliance will be a minister at some stage, and one of them appears to be little more than the Minister for Waterford.

The problem of designing ministerial appointments to maintain power is that it further erodes the public's trust. People see this and become more cynical.

The first two weeks of this Government contrasts with the extended honeymoon in 2011. Then, Kenny started well with simple things like walking to work. His upbeat persona provided sharp relief to the dour Cowen. Kenny was also lucky to bask in the reflected glow of the visits of Obama and the Queen.

Instead, now we see old controversies re-emerge. Though the Tanaiste, Frances FitzGerald, at least had the sense to parry away questions on the Garda Commissioner's instructions to counsel regarding the whistle-blower, Maurice McCabe, some of the Independent Alliance junior ministers were less coy.

The new Dail means government defeats. Fianna Fail's Michael McGrath got his Bill on variable mortgage interest rates over the first legislative hurdle despite the Government's opposition.

The Government lost in its plan to introduce green bin charges. Simon Coveney was clever about it. He knew he could lose and dropped the plan quickly. It meant it didn't become a story.

The Government will have to learn to pick the battles it can win, or gain support when losing. This will mean the Taoiseach has to be active in making the decisions on what to push and what to let go.

His political experience will be useful and it should be experience the Independent ministers learn to rely on.

But Kenny needs to be astute not glic. The ministerial appointments were glic, but not strategically smart. If he tries too hard to stay in office, or to damage his rivals, the Government will make mistakes.

He might not just have a short honeymoon, it could be a short marriage.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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