Sunday 25 September 2016

Jody Corcoran: Kenny remains the stumbling block to his own re-election as Taoiseach

Old habits die hard in Fine Gael - spin, not substance, is at the root of the Irish Water issue, writes Jody Corcoran

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

HANGING BY A THREAD: Enda Kenny at Government Buildings with TDs Eoghan Murphy and Josepha Madigan. The Fine Gael leader needs to change the way he conducts his business if he wants to stay on as Taoiseach — and remain in the post for a decent amount of time. Photo: Arthur Carron
HANGING BY A THREAD: Enda Kenny at Government Buildings with TDs Eoghan Murphy and Josepha Madigan. The Fine Gael leader needs to change the way he conducts his business if he wants to stay on as Taoiseach — and remain in the post for a decent amount of time. Photo: Arthur Carron

If Enda Kenny wants to be re-elected as Taoiseach he needs to do a deal on Irish Water and water charges and, after that, if he wants to remain as Taoiseach for a reasonable period of time he also needs to fundamentally change the way he does business.

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Since the election, Fine Gael, under the continued - by a thread - leadership of Kenny, has talked the talk about learning the lessons of the election but has failed to show that is really the case.

It may be Kenny has come to acknowledge that Fine Gael's pitch to the electorate was all wrong - but that is not the issue. The issue is how he does business.

When Fine Gael admits that its 'stability vs chaos' and 'let's keep the recovery going' mantras missed the mood of voters, that is no more than an admission that the party's spin doctors, advisers and focus group pollsters badly miscued.

To give some credit, it may be that Fine Gael and Kenny have since come to realise they were out of touch with the real concerns of the electorate, which wanted a fairer and more equal recovery.

But they have shown little regard to is precisely why they were so out of touch.

The answer to that question requires a deeper analysis of the election outcome than Fine Gael, and Kenny, have shown a willingness to undertake since the election.

But the answer is at the core of Fine Gael and Kenny's inability, to date, to put together a government.

To understand where Fine Gael and Kenny went wrong, and continue to go wrong, we must refer back to those spin doctors and advisers who still exert a controlling influence over the acting Taoiseach.

Last week provided another example: throughout the week the media was stuffed with an assumption that a deal was imminent on the formation of a government.

The slant on these reports clearly showed the 'spin' was coming from Fine Gael. Old habits die hard. Irish Water would remain as is, it was said; there may be some leeway in the regime of charges, it was conceded; but the impression was clearly created was that Fianna Fail was about to cave in on an election promise.

The 'spin' was so insistent, in fact, that Sinn Fein felt compelled to come out on to the plinth of Leinster House and accuse Fianna Fail of a breach of faith.

Finally, Fianna Fail TD Thomas Byrne called out what was going on: "There has been absolutely no deal on Irish Water. The talks are still going on. More reports are coming back to us on the issue before a decision is reached. The media reports are all just spin." Never a truer word was said.

The tactic highlighted by Byrne was the same tactic exercised by Fine Gael, and Kenny, throughout the past five years, as the Labour Party can testify to its cost. It can be summed up as follows: spin over substance. So if you want to analyse why Fine Gael really lost the election, that is the starting point.

It may be true that the issue of Irish Water and water charges was not primary among the concerns of the electorate in February and that, therefore, a deal should not be beyond the reach of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to allow a government be formed.

But that would be to somewhat misunderstand the nature of this contronversial issue: the initial establishment of Irish Water, the appointment of highly paid executives, consultants, PPS numbers and the imposition of charges of up to €750, came to represent the final straw for the vast majority of people towards the end of a severe range of austerity measures.

This issue reached a high point in November 2014 when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest, an event which forced the then government to further mess around with what may have been a necessary, but was always a poorly conceived and badly implemented policy.

To this day, Irish Water and water charges remain a totemic issue, which is too easily dismissed by swathes of a largely middle-class media, and which is still being clung to for some reason by Fine Gael, perhaps as a symbol of its continued support to fallen comrades in the election.

Another Fianna Fail TD, Willie O'Dea, last week questioned Fine Gael's motivation in this regard: "I find it difficult to know why Fine Gael would be so determined on a course of action that has been rejected, as far as I can see, by about 70pc of the voters, and has been opposed by about 60-70pc of the members in there," he said, referring to the Dail. "I mean, to hang your hat on something like that seems, to me, to be extremely foolish."

It is not as if Fianna Fail is outright opposed to water charges, which it wants suspended for the lifetime of this Dail, or Irish Water itself, which it wants looked at again, this time with regard to the wider good that includes the support of the people. It is not rocket science.

Fianna Fail is proposing that the Irish Water model go before a commission of various experts, one assumes, and that body should then put forward recommendations as to the commercial nature of a water utility.

In effect, Fianna Fail is proposing an overdue retrofit of Irish Water to make it work; and for it to work, it must be accepted by a clear majority of people, not just by a middle-class media, who tend to portray all of those opposed to the construct and manner of the company and the charges regime as, well, scumbags.

As part of this proposal, Fianna Fail wants to suspend charges for the lifetime of this Dail, which would be in keeping with a promise made by the party before the election.

For adopting such a position, Fianna Fail has been criticised by the same media, and has been portrayed as cynical and opportunist by those same Fine Gael spin doctors and advisers.

Here is a newsflash to all concerned: Fianna Fail does not particularly care what the media think of the party and cares even less what Fine Gael thinks or says about it.

If I have taken away anything from observing the Fianna Fail at close quarters for the past five years, it is that the party knows it has just escaped the white heat of pure political hell, the fire of which has fundamentally altered its thinking at all levels from the bottom up.

So when Micheal Martin says that he will not go into government with Fine Gael (or Sinn Fein), that is what he means, and no Fine Gael 'spin' is going to force him to do otherwise.

When he says he will facilitate a Fine Gael-led minority government for two to three years, depending on the manner in which Enda Kenny conducts his business, he will stand by that, too, irrespespective what the cynics may think.

And when he says Fianna Fail also made an election promise in relation to Irish Water and water charges, you can be sure he also intends to stand by, or as close to that as possible.

That is not to say Fianna Fail is not open to a deal on the issue of Irish Water and water charges, but it will be a deal the party can stand over, which will necessarily involve some compromise, but will be short of a breach of faith with the electorate that Enda Kenny, Fine Gael and some in the media seem to think should be forced on the party.

This and other outstanding issues are not insurmountable, but it augurs badly for the working of a putative new minority government that 'spin' and bad faith have already emerged as the lubricant to grease the wheel.

As I said last weekend, the problem here remains Enda Kenny and the manner in which he conducts business. Alongside him, you can add whoever are those spin doctors and advisers who seem to think a media headline will put pressure on and cause Fianna Fail to fold.

Between them all - Enda Kenny and his advisers - they remain this weekend, bizarrely it must be said, the greatest stumbling block to the re-election of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

The only question now is who will blink first. The answer has to be Enda Kenny, or there will be another election.

Sunday Independent

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