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Tuesday 16 September 2014

Government must end politics of the three-card trick

Coalition still needs to realise end to austerity rather than cabinet shuffling is the only road to recovery for Enda and Joan's team, writes John Drennan

Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30

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1/5/2013; Taoiseach Enda Kenny, T.D., and Joan Burton, T.D., Minister for Social Protection at the launch of an independent evaluation of the JobBridge Scheme which demonstrates the internship scheme is amongest the most successful in Europe. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Tanaiste Joan Burton and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Damien Eagers

Even before Mr Kenny's reshuffle started to inspire comparisons with the 16th -Century Scottish reformer John Knox's 'first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women', the Taoiseach was in a distinctly dog-in-the-manger mood.

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Others might have been wailing about how the reshuffle had taken five weeks, in contrast, the Taoiseach looked like a man who would have been happier if the affair took five months.

There may be more than temerity behind the Taoiseach's unease, for the notion that a cabinet reshuffle is some form of political blood transfusion is a political myth.

Instead, reshuffles are generally the last gamble of governments that have run out of things to do or say.

On the plus side, they can sometimes be sold as a public confession of penitence where appropriate chastisement is visited upon offending ministers and their replacements tell us lessons have been learnt.

Within this context, when it came to the Coalition, a reshuffle was certainly needed.

The Government may have characterised itself as a wartime administration, but to put it mildly, a Churchill-style timbre of optimism through adversity has been lacking.

Instead, it has borne an ever closer resemblance to those stupid World War One leaders immortalised by Siegfried Sassoon's famous poem about The General.

In it, our poet noted that whilst the self same general was a cheerful fellow that said hello to ordinary soldiers like Harry and Jack, he still ''did for them both with his plan of attack''.

In our case, Dear Leader Enda may be an outwardly cheerful chap, but even before last week he had already done for a fair few Fine Gael TDs with his 'plan of attack'.

The problem harrying Mr Kenny is whether he can now prove that the Government has learnt from failure.

Sadly, the Enda Flynnstone status he has secured on the gender front alone, suggests the Taoiseach is still in slow learner mode.

He would, though, be wise to move swiftly out of remedial class and realise that changing ministers without changing policies is like the old World War One tactic of replacing a set of generals, who believe your ability to absorb slaughter will be enough to frighten off the enemy, with a new set of generals who believe in the same strategy.

The harsh truth when it comes to this administration is that it actually needs a change in policy as well as personnel.

Unfortunately for the Coalition, if this is to occur, it will have to engage in a fundamental U-turn, for the seeds of Fine Gael and Labour's current blighted state began on their very first day in office.

In a defining moment, frozen as they were into a state of suspended shock by the desert they inherited, our Grumpy Old Men decided that becoming poster boys for austerity represented the best escape route for the country.

Sadly, while our masters in Europe were more than impressed by the diligence with which our Grumpy Old Men served the Troika, Europe, the ECB and Ms Merkel, this self-same vigour left them fatally open to the charge of appeasement at home.

That was bad enough, but the situation has become even more politically complex courtesy of the unveiling of the rotten heart of austerity across Europe.

The growing belief that austerity is little better than a modern version of 19th-Century Malthusian economics that spread famine across a continent means it increasingly looks as though our cautious Coalition has backed the wrong fiscal horse.

Admitting this will not be easy, but if the Coalition is to secure a second term then, like all forms of murder, it would be better if the reverse were made quickly.

That alone will be tricky, though more so for Enda than Joan.

And the Taoiseach will struggle even more in facing up to the second great failure of the Coalition, for that has been a moral one.

It is astonishing given the clarity of Mr Kenny's recognition, prior to the election that the great Irish malaise consisted of how we were governed, that Fine Gael and Labour have continued to rule us in precisely the same manner as their unlamented predecessors.

But, the defining feature of governance under Enda has been tribal politics allied to the pulling down of the shutters ever tighter on openness, transparency accountability and women.

Like all of its predecessors, be it over the Shatter affair or the pylons debacle, this administration has talked down to the citizens in a remarkably similar manner to BIFFO's Victorian Dad school of public discourse.

That on its own is bad enough, but the too-cute-for-the-voters'- own-good method of governance, which so typified the Bertie Ahern administration, has also been enthusiastically copied by Mr Kenny to such an extent that it often appears the Taoiseach is a case study in Stockholm syndrome.

Nothing epitomises this fatal trait more than the three-card trick being played with the Irish Water debacle where the electorate has swiftly discovered an average fee of €240 is not what it appears to be at all.

The concept of the three-card trick has also been at play when it comes to the Moby Dick of Universal Health Insurance.

In yet another variant of this administration's core value of ''more for less'', the squeezed middle - having been led to believe they would be getting free health care before the election - have now been informed they will be paying higher compulsory health insurance for a lesser service.

It is a long way indeed from 'Obamacare' poor Paddy is receiving these days.

We have also had the experience where a government with a record Dail majority asked for even more powers to draw up Dail inquiries.

Then, having responded with shock when their bona fides were rejected by the voters, the very same set of gentlemen set up a 'neutral' banking inquiry into 'collusion' between Fianna Fail and the banks which is timed to report in the run up to the next election.

The problem, alas, with all of those three-card tricks is that eventually, as happened with Bertie, when they have been gulled too often, the voters just move away.

In May, the voters did precisely this to the Coalition, who will now be anxiously asking if a mere cabinet reshuffle will be enough to repair the breach of promise the voters believe they are guilty of.

In the wake of the rout of Labour in Meath East, the then Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte ruefully admitted that when it came to securing the love of the Irish voter, falling bond yields had buttered ''no parsnips''.

Now as the dust and crashing furniture settles, the key question this administration will be asking is, will a few rolling heads fare any better when it comes to the critical issue of buttering up the electorate?

The one thing that we can be certain of is that if the Coalition does not learn the too-clever-for-your-own-good politics of the three-card trick is a definite route to an early electoral grave, they will experience the political equivalent of austerity far more speedily than they would like.

Sunday Independent

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