Kenny and Martin hold middle ground
The Taoiseach has given another masterclass in trench warfare politics, writes Jody Corcoran
A week after the election I said that if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail played their cards right both parties would continue to assert themselves over the next two election cycles and would remain, for our lifetime, the dominant forces in politics.
For all the criticism in the 70 days it took to form this Government, that is precisely what Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin have done. Despite what the doomsayers now maintain, it is entirely possible that this Government will last for two years and see through the passage of three budgets.
If it were left to the Taoiseach and the Fianna Fail leader, you could comfortably expect this Government to survive for the guts of three years, but of course it will not be left to these two most pragmatic of men. The manner in which some Independents hemmed and hawed before enough of them finally signed up to wear the boots of government does not bode well for the medium-term prospect of this Government; but that said, if the new administration manages to bed down between now and the budget in October, there is every chance it will continue to see out its truncated term.
The survival of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach is also crucial to this scenario. He has shown steely resolve, not for the first time, to see this Government formed, and his Cabinet appointments were also a masterclass in terms of shoring up his leadership. Kenny truly is a remarkable trench warfare politician, one of the finest this country has ever seen, and he deserves congratulations on his historic re-election.
If he continues in this vein, and there is every reason to believe he will, then the prospects are high for this raggle-taggle Government to achieve some real good. I, for one, and perhaps alone, remain optimistic as to the success of the "new politics" upon us which so many seem to disregard.
To explain that masterclass Cabinet: the two heirs apparent, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, have been presented as demoted, or at least moved sideways. The truth is, only Varadkar has been so. Coveney has been handed a most important job, in that his role relates to the most immediate crisis facing the Government - to sort out the housing mess.
Until now, both heirs apparent had been steadily building their allies: Paschal Donohoe is a Varadkar fan; Simon Harris, the new health minister, is more closely associated with Coveney. This was the axis around which the succession was set to take place. However, both Donohoe and Harris may now ferment leadership pretensions of their own, particularly if both are seen to achieve results in their new positions and have their prospects duly talked up.
Kenny also saw fit to move one of the relatively few successes in his last government, Richard Bruton, from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to Education and Skills, to make way for the relatively unknown and untested Mary Mitchell O'Connor. This about-shuffle has left many in the business community scratching their heads, particularly as Mitchell O'Connor has a background in education. The upshot must be that Kenny's challenger from before, Richard Bruton, has been moved ever so slightly towards the exit door, which is not of course to play down the importance of the education portfolio, just to muse that the Taoiseach continues to act in his own way.
Perhaps the most significant but under-the-radar appointment was of Michael Creed from the backbenches to the Department of Agriculture. Creed had supported Bruton's challenge to the leadership of Enda Kenny. Without doubt, he is one of the brighter sparks in Fine Gael, and those who say his appointment to Cabinet is long overdue are correct. The appointment also removes a cohort of dissatisfaction with Kenny's leadership which had found cause in the now new agriculture minister.
What Enda Kenny does next will be equally aimed at shoring up his leadership until he is ready to depart. Yes, the minister of State appointments will be important, but the real significance here will be his appointments to the Seanad. Bet your bottom dollar on this: all 11, or damn close to it, will be Fine Gael TDs who lost their seat in the election, and certainly all will be arch-loyalists to the Taoiseach. These appointments will also underpin his leadership. We know this is the Taoiseach's intention because during negotiations with the Independents Kenny had just one redline issue: No, he said, and repeated, and was adamant - he would not appoint to the Seanad a favoured candidate of any Independent TD. Not a chance. No. Not even if it was the only demand in return for a crucial vote, as it was in some cases. The Taoiseach intends to return to the battlefield and pick up his wounded soldiers. Get ready for old-hand Kenny loyalists to fill the Seanad.
He will then turn his hand to developing his relationship with Micheal Martin and the Fianna Fail leader will also step tentatively through the minefield that will be the workings of this minority Government. Both men will have as much to lose as gain: Kenny needs Martin, and Martin needs Kenny in situ for as long a period as is reasonable.
Both men will secure the middle ground, together, and if the public mood is to be judged correctly, both will be given fair wind to do so, as long as they achieve what they set out to do. In a word, that will be to reduce the levels of "anxiety" which exist throughout the country and within all strands of society. Kenny knows this. He always knew it. His problem was that he handed over the Fine Gael election campaign to people whose political instincts were not a patch on his. He has learned that lesson. Given a fair run, do not be surprised to discover that the next two years will be the political makings of Kenny, which he will look back on with a measure of satisfaction.
That said, of course, it could all go belly-up next week if one of the many particularly flaky individuals underpinning this new arrangement takes it into their head that they are greater than the sum of its parts.