Tuesday 25 October 2016

The next 100 days: Will Taoiseach Enda Kenny survive and what trapdoors lie in wait for Cabinet?

There is reason to believe the Government will pass the Budget but that's not the only issue

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

It's November 22 and Enda Kenny is in his final days as Taoiseach. Having made the decision to retire after holding the government together in the wake of a contentious Budget Day, he picked his moment and told the Dail that he would leave the stage on his own terms.

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There was deep relief in Fine Gael - particularly among the pretenders to the throne - Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald - that nobody has had to publicly push him.

They are now locked in an intriguing succession battle. Fitzgerald has surprised many by putting up a good stump, playing to a large extent on feel-good factor that followed Hillary Clinton's election as the first female president of the United States. Surely it's time Ireland had a woman as the head of government.

Varadkar is still the favourite but faces questions about his record. What did he really achieve in health? Is he statesmanlike enough to be leader?

Simon Coveney is gaining ground. Since taking over the housing portfolio he has played the long game. He has avoided brash talk and obvious courting of support while trying to present himself as the 'steady hand' to keep Fine Gael true to itself.

But two big questions hang over him too. Will the rest of the country really be happy if at the next election the two choices for Taoiseach come from the same constituency? The minister is a Cork South Central rival of Micheal Martin.

And the Fianna Fail leader presents the second problem too. Mr Martin is riding high in the opinion polls, proving popular with the squeezed middle and pensioners who are growing tired of the limitations of 'new politics'.

Fine Gael grassroots trust Coveney more than Varadkar but the latter would be better at countering Mr Martin's presidential-style of leadership. That leaves a slim space for Fitzgerald to come through the middle. It's a healthy contest and a best case scenario for Fine Gael.

The alternative is that Mr Kenny decides he wants to remain in-situ and whether or not there is a heave - the questions over his longevity will continue to weaken the party's position.

A lot has been made in the past week about the first 100 days of the Fine Gael/Independent Government - but the reality is that what happens over the next 100 days will be far more important for Fine Gael and the country.

The next three and a bit months will see Fine Gael and Fianna Fail finally end the phoney war.

Come the Budget, both sides will have to decide how far they can push each other and still maintain their 'confidence and supply' arrangement.

Already this week we have seen the early shots being fired. On the front page of this newspaper last Sunday Fianna Fail's social protection spokesman, Willie O'Dea, didn't call for a €5 increase to the old age pension, he demanded it.

In response, Public Expenditure Minister, Paschal Donohoe, warned that he will not dance to the tune of Fianna Fail - even if there are threats from the self-titled 'main party of Opposition' that they will collapse the Government.

Sources say that Micheal Martin has warned his frontbench TDs not to hype up definitive promises in advance of the Budget.

Senior party people believe Mr O'Dea went on a "solo run", although he is unapologetic for it.

The fact is that Fianna Fail wants a budget to get through the Dail but at the same time doesn't want to be seen to give the Government a "free pass".

Sinn Fein will be screaming blue murder over everything from housing to USC cuts. Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald will consistently try to drive home the message that Fianna Fail TDs are the "buddies" of Fine Gael and are co-guarantors of the Budget.

For Mr Martin the next 100 days will be largely about looking responsible.

It's all part of the continuing effort to rebuild the party's image and distance itself from the mad, reckless days of the Celtic Tiger.

The 'Ireland For All' campaign that it ran during the General Election in February achieved a lot.

Things almost took a turn for the worst when it looked like the party would refuse to help with the formation of a government - but since Enda Kenny went back into office, Fianna Fail has run a clever balancing act that many thought wouldn't be possible.

Now Mr Martin must take it a step further before going back to the electorate again in a bid to become Taoiseach.

The Budget will also test the mettle of the Independents. Even his Alliance colleagues are wondering whether Junior Minister John Halligan will survive the Budget.

Just last week he was arguing that there should be tough legislation to force Google and Facebook to pay higher taxes.

Aside from the Budget, how will he react in early autumn if, as many analysts predict, the EU Commission rules that Apple struck unfair deals that led to Ireland losing billions in tax revenue between 1991 and 2007.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan has argued that no State aid was given to the computer giant - and is likely to politely tell Europe that we'd rather appeal a negative decision than gleefully accept the windfall.

Will Mr Halligan be able to stay in a government that backs big business with money that could be used in the health service or for education?

And if he goes what will Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and the other Independent Alliance members do?

And while Denis Naughten has transitioned better than most from the obscurity of the Independent benches to Cabinet, it's worth remembering that he walked out on Fine Gael when he didn't like cutbacks made to his local hospital. Will he get everything he believes his department deserves when the €1bn 'fiscal space' is diced up between ministers?

In the background Brexit will still be the burning issue.

It's unlikely that British prime minister Theresa May will activate Article 50 and formally pull the UK out of the European Union this year - but despite what other leaders say about negotiations not starting, they will dominate politics.

The Taoiseach will be in Bratislava on September 28 and 29 to meet with other European leaders.

This is the point where we might get some solid information on whether Europe really believes we're a 'special case', or actually a bunch of 'whingers' who constantly seek reassurance.

The answer to that question will be crucial. Heather Humphreys, the Rural Development Minister, this week described Mr Kenny as our "ace card" when it comes to the negotiations.

He has done well to convince French President Francois Hollande of our 'special status' but just like the Taoiseach there are major questions over Hollande's lifespan in power.

There has been significant disagreement though between people in Government and members of fourth estate who heard two very different messages from Angela Merkel during Mr Kenny's visit to Berlin last month.

While the media reported the German chancellor's public statement that Ireland will have an equal voice, somehow Government spokespeople interpreted that as her saying we are a 'special case'.

Clarity around her real stance and that of other leaders will emerge over the coming weeks - and this will have a major bearing on the Cabinet's Brexit strategy.

By November 22 too we will have had three more months of Exchequer returns and the 'Ministers of Merrion Street', Noonan and Donohoe, will be anxiously studying the pattern.

Last month, the state's income ran almost €100m behind target after VAT receipts took a wobble.

November is the biggest month of the year for income tax as most of the country's 325,000 self-employed workers cough up in the region of €2.5bn.

Will jobs minister, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, be able to say, as promised, by the end of the year that there are two million people at work in the Irish economy?

In policy areas too the Government won't be able to hide behind the cloak of 'finding their feet'.

The first 100 days is largely about making plans but we should also be seeing some tangible results in the areas of housing and health by November 22.

Above all Simon Coveney committed that B&Bs and hotels would only be used for homeless families in exceptional circumstances by the middle of 2017.

If in the weeks leading into Christmas the number without a roof over their head is still growing, the Government can expect a storm to begin building.

Similarly, Simon Harris's new five point plan for reducing hospital waiting lists should be making some impact.

And then there will be the surprises.

In the first 100 days the surprises were extreme: everything from a bloody gangland feud in Dublin to Cabinet members ignoring the advice of the Attorney General.

They were significant and emotionally charged events that sparked widespread public debate but ultimately the Cabinet figured a way forward and moved on. But it's the smaller 'events' that can turn into crises and can trip up a government.

Ultimately though the one thing we are almost guaranteed not to have at 'Day 200' is an election in the offing.

If a budget fails to pass, we would get the November election that never was last year.

But no party wants that. Not even Sinn Fein.

After the bitter days of February there was a broad consensus around Leinster House that the electoral cycle should be readjusted to spring/summer.

My money still sits on May 2017.

Sunday Independent

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