Thursday 14 December 2017

Bad start for Joan - Enda wins power game, again

Main trouble for 
Burton may be the curious promotion of Alex White.

All smiles after the vote, but what will Ms Burton do with defeated Alex White.
All smiles after the vote, but what will Ms Burton do with defeated Alex White.
John Drennan

John Drennan

THE problem with the old saying about a good start representing half the work is that the opposite applies to a bad beginning.

And in the case of the new Tanaiste Joan Burton, a great deal of future difficulties may have been stored up by that first Cabinet reshuffle.

The great anxiety for Labour, when it came to the Coalition's last throw of the dice, was that it would not fall victim to the dictum that history repeats itself as tragedy.

Yet, astonishingly, as the longest ever Cabinet reshuffle - which had followed the longest ever leadership contest - was unveiled, these were the precise territories we were in.

It is not the first time that Labour has found itself outfoxed by Fine Gael. But it was not supposed to end this way on this occasion.

In the case of Enda's new Tanaiste, a long-term source of agony for the Burton camp was how Fine Gael had won all of the big political showdowns.

Right from the first day where Gilmore ceded a sixth Cabinet ministry, in return for the bauble of the AG's post, Fine Gael had frogmarched a Labour party psychologically scarred by a disastrous 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' campaign into the political sidelines.

Fine Gael wanted Health and got Health. They wanted Jobs and they got Jobs. They did not want Foreign Affairs, so Gilmore got that.

In Finance, Micheal Noonan was put in charge of tax cuts and Brendan Howlin 
of spending cuts.

In fairness to Labour, their intentions were good - it wanted to avoid the squabbles that had holed other Coalitions almost below the political waterline.

The problem, though, is that politicians with good intentions have a similar lifespan to the Mayfly.

Now for the second time Enda has pulled the old smoke and daggers trick on a Labour leader.

The party can dress the reshuffle up and down as much as they like but Labour really thirsted for Jobs.

This was to be Joan's big ticket signature which would declare that things are different now.

Labour got Environment.

The party attempted to trumpet the role Environment could play in a massive house-building programme that would get 80,000 building workers off the dole and buying breakfast rolls again.

But Enda may be grinning into his sleeve over that one too for there is no shortage of vipers and hydras hiding in those bushes.

What is Labour to do with water charges, with the local property tax and the rest of the delights that almost sank as cute an operator as Phil Hogan?

There were other disappointments too. Labour wanted, it claimed, the EU Commissioners job for Mr Gilmore. But Mr Gilmore and Labour got fresh air.

Labour claimed it wanted a sixth Cabinet ministry but got more fresh air.

Ultimately, the main 
trouble for Joan may be provided by the decision to elevate Alex White.

It was the most curious of choices, given that at the Labour hustings, the party's own voters had sampled Mr White's political bedside manner and did not like the taste too much.

The decision was symptomatic of a dangerous caution at a time where Labour, more than ever, needed to be radical.

It also epitomised the nature of a reshuffle within the Labour ranks that was as bland as blancmange.

The decision to replace Pat Rabbitte, who for all his flaws is a man of character and insight, with a former RTE apparatchik brought Yeats to mind.

Many will certainly ask, in the case of Mr White, "was it for this the grey geese spread, the grey wing on every tide".

In contrast, Mr Kenny, once again, managed to surprise us all.

The Taoiseach has, whether by accident or design, chosen Leo, the man the public wants, to sort out health and it is up to Leo now to prove he can be a Noel Browne.

Whether by intent or accident the retention of Richard Bruton in the Enterprise portfolio will not harm the Dear Leader either.

Mr Bruton may have the profile of a hamster in a tiger enclosure, but deep down the voters would have been displeased had Enda sacked the man who appears to be doing the job well.

Some Leinster House 
insiders may believe that Mr Kenny has been weakened internally by the departure of Phil Hogan and the removal of Dr James to the Elba of the Ministry for Children.

The Taoiseach's political psyche was certainly set in stone by the Alamo style stand-off in 2010 when Enda saw off the Bruton revolt.

But time and political necessities, as a canny pragmatist like Enda knows, move on.

The blunt truth is that whilst two of the FG brothers who fought with Enda at the FG Alamo - Little Al Shatter and Cute Old Phil - are in the dustbin of history, their departure will hardly damage the Government.

And whilst many might wail, "will someone think of the children" over the Reilly appointment, could it be that Dr Reilly's capacity for empathy means he will be a success in the post?

Whether by accident or design, again, Mr Kenny has found himself in the happy position where his troika of political trouble has been removed from the political frontline without the spilling of more than a thimbleful of blood on the political bull-ring.

Better still, by daring to appoint a second woman and Pascal Donohoe to the Cabinet, Mr Kenny has, by accident or design, freshened the appearance of FG.

And, once again, by accident or design, the decision to appoint as Foreign Affairs Minister one of Fine Gael's few experts on the North of Ireland, Charlie Flanagan, could not have come at a more important time.

The strange affair of the Cabinet reshuffle certainly proved that nothing in Irish politics turns out as you expect.

Up to noon last Friday, it looked as though a change in the political balance of power was about to occur within the Coalition.

The failure of Labour under Mr Gilmore to even essay the occasional bark at Fine Gael saw the voters take serial bites out of Labour in the recent local and European elections.

But in a strange way its flirtation with a Green Party style meltdown appeared to release the shackles of fear from Labour.

It had seen and tasted the abyss and there are no new terrors for it to discover - or so it thinks.

By contrast, Fine Gael had been shaken by the eerie whine of the political bacon- slicer sidling right up beside their political posteriors.

In the run-up to the reshuffle, the difference between the Taoiseach and his new Tanaiste had been even more intriguing.

Churchill once noted, a leader, when it comes to surgery, has to be a good butcher.

Enda, though, seemed to be trembling over the prospect of despatching the hapless Jimmy Deenihan to the political equivalent of the river Lethe.

Labours new 'Iron Lady' in contrast was laying waste to former party leaders, current challengers and the old establishment as she removed Mr Rabbitte in the insouciant way one might dislodge a piece of meat from a tooth.

That was then, but the now of things is that those Labour hopes that the arrival of Joan would upset the apple cart of the Coalition balance of power lie in tatters.

Instead, once again, Mr Kenny confounded his critics and won the power game.

Once again we were all 
surprised by the cunning of Enda.

Some day we might even learn not to be.

Sunday Independent

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