Sunday 23 October 2016

Kenny will see an early election just makes sense

Almost everything that's happening suggests the autumn is the optimum time to go to the country

Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30

BURNING DESIRE: Enda Kenny ‘wants to be the first Fine Gael Taoiseach ever to be re-elected as Taoiseach. That’s history’. Photo: El Keegan
BURNING DESIRE: Enda Kenny ‘wants to be the first Fine Gael Taoiseach ever to be re-elected as Taoiseach. That’s history’. Photo: El Keegan

'The Taoiseach has said time and time again he believes we should go the full distance." That's what Richard Bruton told us on Tuesday last when the question was raised yet again as to whether this Government would go its full term to next April or cut and run for an early election in November - autumn in the traditional calendar.

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As denials go, it is not the most convincing you could ever hope to hear. It merely states a fact - that the Taoiseach has said it more than once. So what? The Taoiseach has said many things more than once and enough of them never came to pass. Add to that the fact that Richard is not, and has not been for a long time, the closest of confidantes the Taoiseach might have - for obvious recently historic reasons. "Keep a good eye on Richard, he gets a bit skittish when there's an election in the air," you can just hear Enda say.

Let's face it, nobody really knows what Enda will do. Quite possibly, he doesn't know himself. He seems a single-minded kind of fellow, and the last time he said he believed his Government would go on until the end, and the time before that, he probably meant it. And maybe the next time too. But politics is politics and saying it a hundred times would not prevent him changing his mind. That's the Taoiseach's prerogative, and only the Taoiseach's.

But simple soul or not, Enda Kenny is also a crafty politician and whether it is known to his conscious self or not, he is definitely preparing the ground for an early election. As recently as last week he was at it again, when the Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, decided the whole Catherine Murphy/Denis O'Brien saga was lasting just a little too long and kicked it into a Commission of Inquiry. This was not business as usual. This was doing something which was virtually the same as what Catherine Murphy, who caused all the fuss, was looking to have done; it was exactly the same as what was voted down by the Government after Fianna Fail proposed it. This was clearing the decks by setting up a Commission that is supposed to report by the end of the year. Commissions tend to over-run these deadlines, but whichever happens, the comment of Leo Varadkar on Thursday was interesting. Leo was on Newstalk and ventured to suggest that the Commission would not report this side of an election. On the face of it, this means Leo is a little cynical about the end-of-year deadline. Or you could think Leo has let the cat out of the bag.

Then there's the Fennelly Commission. Right now, copies of its interim report are being circulated to interested parties - people like the Taoiseach and Alan Shatter and Martin Callinan and Brian Purcell. They will all have a good read of it and then let Fennelly know what they think and if they feel parts of it have been unfair to them; and then the Commission will have to go away and draw up a final version. One way or another, that too could be ready by the end of the year if not sooner. And whatever the verdict, it's not going to do the Taoiseach any favours. Enda can't really depend on Fennelly to wait around at his convenience, so he may have to suck up that one, but it's another really good reason not hang around too long.

Enda will be hoping that there will be no such delay on another report - that of the Banking Inquiry which he orchestrated in such a way that it would be an inquiry into Fianna Fail as much as into any bank. He must hope that a public roasting of former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen will be swiftly followed in September by a report that will serve to remind everyone, yet again, what a terrible shower the last government were and how lucky we were to have Enda rescue us from them, and how foolish we would be to let them back in again so soon.

Then there were the teachers kicking up murder about reforming the Junior Cert. Actually challenging the right of the Government to decide education policy, and it looked for a while as if the Government was going to face them down and assert its democratic authority. Then, suddenly, the Government caved in. It was almost as if the Taoiseach had told Joan Burton: "I don't want teachers picketing the schools in the autumn. Tell Jan O'Sullivan to give them what they want for now. We'll come back to it later."

Then there was the public service pay restoration. A Labour idea obviously, since Fine Gael-voting private sector workers would feel discriminated against, so at first it was soft-pedalled. It would all happen over a few years and would be matched to the restoration of the economy. But then suddenly Brendan Howlin was meeting with the public service unions until 2am to finalise a deal. What the hell happened there?

The answer lies in the fact that Enda wants back into Government. He wants to be the first Fine Gael Taoiseach ever to be re-elected as Taoiseach. That's history. He also wants to win an election where everyone won't afterwards be going round saying "It was Phil Hogan what won it for him".

But he also knows he has little chance of getting an overall majority - less chance than he had last time out. He doesn't want to share government with Fianna Fail - who would he have to compare himself so favourably with if he did? He won't share power with Sinn Fein - that's a sine qua non. And he's hanged if he's going to depend on a disparate bunch of Independents, even if some of them are ex-Fine Gael and call themselves Renua now. Maybe especially because of that.

So Enda's preferred option is to get back with his Labour partners. And for a long time there, it looked like the fortunes of Labour were so battered that this could not happen, hence letting them off the leash with the public servants and cutting the USC rather than income tax in the Budget. Now the polls are beginning to show a little better for Labour. They are good for Fine Gael too, which wasn't true 10 months ago and, conversely, there is no guarantee it will still be true in 10 months' time. That whole O'Brien/Murphy thing got a bit hairy for a while. Enough to test the mettle of any Taoiseach who has spent most of this year just trying to keep a lid on everything and avoid banana skins. Enda can't afford to take any more chances. He's probably thinking: "Christ, if it can happen with Noonan, it can happen with any of them".

The Taoiseach might have been joking when he told Bobby Aylward not to put the election posters away just yet - just as he was probably joking when he asked Michael Lowry if that was a membership application he saw in his pocket.

But with Enda, it's hard to know. Sometimes it's hard to know if you are listening to Enda Kenny or Oliver Callan - like when he pondered the idea of the "best small country to be gay" on referendum night. Of course the same-sex marriage result was another great fillip for Enda, even if most of his deputies, like those in Fianna Fail, didn't exactly turn out. And losing the by-election straight after didn't help. But as Pat Rabbitte might say, that's what governments tend to do in by-elections. Anyway, along came Averil Power and her angry exit from Fianna Fail to ease the pain.

Put all of this together with the good economic profile - unemployment down, the deficit reduction hitting target, expenditure substantially reduced and tax income showing great improvement - and you would have to say the gods are smiling on Enda. But they cannot be depended upon to keep smiling. Nor can the people be depended upon to either take promises at face value or stay grateful for small concessions. So the Taoiseach will almost certainly want to get his slightly generous October Budget introduced just before going to the country. To go beforehand would be to risk allowing Fianna Fail and - God help us - Sinn Fein, to out-promise the Government. And to leave it too late afterwards would give those eating the bread a chance to soon forget.

Enda may be a puzzle, even to those who know him. He may be a puzzle to himself sometimes. But some things just make sense. And he is smart enough to recognise that.

Sunday Independent

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