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Friday 23 February 2018

Callinan's exit could pose problems for Taoiseach

THE first anniversary of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan's exit from office is fast approaching.

The actual anniversary of Mr Callinan's shock decision to retire as head of the gardai will be on March 25. But it came to mind again yesterday, as we pondered the findings of an opinion poll for the Sunday Independent which has effectively laid out the battle lines for the next general election.

It will be Fine Gael and Enda Kenny versus Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams. The other parties will, at best, have supporting roles.

If you stay with me, I will explain the potential Callinan link. But let's firstly deal with the implications of that Millward Brown poll for the Sunday Independent, which updated the previous survey findings just before Christmas.

In summary, Sinn Féin is the biggest party on 26pc and up five points; followed by Fine Gael on 25pc, up three; Labour have a one-point gain, but are stuck on 6pc; Fianna Fáil are up one but again stuck on 19pc; while Independents and others are down a whopping 10pc to 24pc.

That finding suggests that both the Taoiseach and the Sinn Féin leader are having their wishes fulfilled. Gerry Adams can frame his arguments about the potential for a better, more people-centred approach to economic management. The Taoiseach can argue for his role in putting the economy back on track and his "realistic plans" to drive on from there.

Overall, the finding suggests that the public mood is becoming more focused on government stability one year out from a general election.

Sinn Féin would appear to have gained most from the 10-point fall in support for Independents and others.

We can again ponder how Sinn Féin might be fixed with a leader other than Gerry Adams. But that is a pointless conversation topic on this side of the general election at any rate.

It is clear that the next election, even more than most such contests, will turn on the credibility of economic policies. Fine Gael have the advantage of incumbency and the ability to offer voters sweeteners in the form of tax reductions and increased payments.

Sinn Féin's extravagant promises will be closely assessed for "fantasy economics".

The role of independent assessors will be crucial. It remains to be seen whether anything comes of recent signals from Finance Minister Michael Noonan about an independent evaluation unit in the Oireachtas. But such a service could do an important job.

Labour remain in a bad place. But their fortunes are probably understated, as surveys do not take account of long-standing Labour politicians who have a big local following.

Fianna Fáil are also in a tricky spot and will struggle to make space in the current line-up. Their need to find a meaningful economic message is urgent.

But back with the main event, the advantage would seem to lie with the Taoiseach in the Kenny-versus-Adams contest. Mr Kenny has every chance of leading the largest party and being the go-to person to form the next government. Fine Gael's task is to keep going and avoid the unforced errors of 2014.

But that is the point where we come back to retirement of Commissioner Callinan 11 months ago.

That matter is now being investigated by retired Supreme Court Judge Nial Fennelly. The circumstances of Mr Callinan's exit from office form part of the investigation into 30 years of Garda tapes of phone conversations between suspects in custody and their lawyers.

The Commissioner's departure came the morning after Mr Kenny sent Justice Department secretary general, Brian Purcell, to Mr Callinan's home to tell of the seriousness with which disclosure of the Garda recordings was viewed within Cabinet. Mr Kenny has rejected Fianna Fáil claims that he had Mr Callinan "sacked" and he has given a statement to Mr Justice Fennelly which remains secret.

Judge Fennelly's findings on the Taoiseach's handling of this matter could prove tricky. The timing of any such findings could also carry some importance.

Irish Independent

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