Sunday 21 January 2018

No shelter from the storm in Enda's whirlwind week

Lise Hand

Lise Hand

IT'S been a whirlwind week for the Taoiseach. A 'state-of-the-nation' address, the presentation of two Budgets in the Dail, two subsequent controversies to dodge or dampen down, two summits in two European cities to attend, and a eurozone to save.

In fact, apart from the week last May when Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama both descended on the country, these past seven days are possibly the most hectic -- but probably the most crucial -- of Enda Kenny's nine months to date as Taoiseach.

It may have been hectic -- but was it a good week in the office, or a bad one?

The tone of the week was set last Sunday night when he made his 'state-of-the-nation' address on television.

There was much anticipation around this event; his predecessor, Brian Cowen, had been widely criticised for failing to address the rattled citizenry as they watched the economy disappear over a cliff.

But Enda's speech is more likely to be categorised as a missed opportunity. It was a stilted, lacklustre affair, short on either inspirational rhetoric or warmth.

It contained the odd memorable phrase such as his vow "to be the Taoiseach who retrieves Ireland's economic sovereignty", but for an empathetic man, his reaching out to the people was remarkably lacking in empathy.

However, even had he soared to Obama-style heights of oratory, his address would still have been marred by the controversy that had broken that same morning over a report that he had personally intervened to ensure that a minister's adviser, former Fine Gael adviser Ciaran Conlon, would receive a salary of €126,000 -- a whopping €35,000 over the salary cap.

This was bad timing of a most unfortunate kind, for the image of a Taoiseach advocating belt-tightening while at the same time looking after one of his own, smacked of Charlie Haughey's infamous 1981 hypocritical 'hair-shirt' state-of-the- nation address.

It was even more unfortunate, given that Mr Kenny then found himself defending his intervention over two Budget days, when ministers Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan were announcing a package of cuts to claw back €3.6bn, including cuts to disability payments and winter fuel allowances.

Understandably, the opposition went to town on the Taoiseach in the Dail.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams excoriated him, demanding that Mr Kenny justify how he could give a €35,000 salary increase to a "political crony" while at the same time finding it acceptable to cut child benefit, disability allowance and mental health provision.

Although it's hard to defend the indefensible, Mr Kenny gave it his best shot, neatly turning the tables on the Sinn Fein leader by highlighting some of his own expenses.

"You, sir, before your election to this Dail, deputy Gerry Adams, claimed £106,880 for eight staff in a parliament which you've never attended," he counter-attacked.

But then the Government was under sustained attack from all quarters over the Budget proposal to cut disability allowances to young people.

Realising that the outrage was set to increase rather than abate, on Wednesday the Taoiseach unveiled a splendid political euphemism, revealing the cut would be "paused" pending a review.

Although his speedy volte-face on the disability payments probably saved him much grief, the controversy over Ciaran Conlon's salary may have inflicted lasting damage on the Taoiseach.

For it smacks of the old way of doing things, of cronyism and of elitism -- ways that, during the general election campaign, he had robustly denounced and pledged to change.

By late Wednesday evening, the Taoiseach was on his way to Marseille (on a commercial flight, which was a wise move) for the Congress of the European Peoples' Party (EPP).

Importantly, it was a chance to have informal pre-EU summit chats on Thursday with fellow EPP members Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, before the action moved to Brussels later in the day.

And the Taoiseach was all too aware of how vital the Brussels summit was, for the eurozone as a whole, but also for the stability of Ireland.

For a minefield lay ahead of him -- the Government is aghast at the prospect of being strong-armed into holding a third referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at a time when many voters feel (rightly) that the Troika imposed punitive rates on last year's bailout.

A referendum has no chance of passing, unless -- and it's still a slim chance -- the Taoiseach can haggle a sweet deal, consolidating our banking loans into the EFSF to lower our towering mountain of debt.

After the meeting in Marseille, Mr Kenny hinted that the horse-trading season was open, making an oblique reference to the "unique" burden of debt on Ireland. And so in Brussels, he dropped this large hint during the summit dinner on Thursday evening -- where he was seated next to the Euro bad boy, David Cameron -- and wasn't pelted with bread rolls for his impertinence.

By Friday, he had bought himself more time on the referendum, stating that the issue was being examined by the Attorney-General to see if a referendum was legally necessary.

It was Enda's whirlwind week -- but it remains to be seen if he ends up reaping the rewards or reaping the whirlwind.

Irish Independent

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