Saturday 20 January 2018

Big Phil and the dark art of cronyism

Enda Kenny is banking on an economic recovery to win the next election, but voters may say 'no' to politics as usual

EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan
EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The thing about Phil Hogan is that he gets things done. And if nothing else, politics is the art of getting things done. Big Phil is quite proud of himself in this regard, in fact, that they say he gets things done.

If he had been around this summer, I would wager, Enda Kenny would not now be mired in the cronyism row because Phil Hogan would have known how to get things done, with nobody any the wiser.

Next week a few Irish MEPs will try to bring him down before he is officially appointed to the role of European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. They will be wasting their time.

That is because Enda Kenny has long since done a deal with Jean-Claude Juncker - Ireland's support - at a time when it looked like he might not make it as President of the European Commission, following reports that he likes to take brandy at breakfast and all.

And nothing is going to change that deal, because that is the way things are done.

But that won't stop the MEPs from throwing every bit of dirt they can when Big Phil appears before 90 of them on Thursday to consider his suitability for his new role as commissioner, with ultimate responsibility for up to 40pc of every cent spent in Europe, a mere €60bn a year.

And as we know, there is no better man than Big Phil to take the pressure of being ultimately responsible for such a vast sum of taxpayers' money. Indeed, with that money, you can be sure he will get lots of things done.

According to media reports, the Irish MEPs intend to raise all manner of issues, from his scrapping of planning inquiries, including one in his own constituency, when he was appointed Minister for the Environment, to certain unfortunate remarks he has made towards women in the past, to - although there is some doubt over this now - his views on the housing of travellers, the "misrepresentation" of which has so annoyed him.

When it comes to the establishment of Irish Water, however, there are those who say he has a case to answer, which Big Phil regards as an "absolute rubbish" case, but a case nonetheless.

He need have no fears in this regard either. Jean Claude has his back. Europe does not see the implementation of water charges as a problem, no matter the cost. It is only taxpayers' money. So Enda Kenny's deal will stick, because that is the way things are done.

In Ireland, we still tend to get upset about the way things are done, from the spending of €50m on external consultants to the appointment of a party hack to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, ten days before bouncing him into the Senate.

Maybe Enda Kenny's eye was off the ball, when he was doing a deal with Jean Claude, or maybe he already misses Big Phil. Either way, it doesn't say much about Fine Gael's re-election prospects, if they can't even sort the election of a party hack to the Senate without causing such a kerfuffle.

It emerged earlier this year that Irish Water had spent more than €50m on external consultants to establish itself as a new semi-State, a revelation that also caused a bit of a stir for a while.

People were angry that such a huge sum could be doled out to set up this semi-State to charge us for water, but Big Phil maintained that while he was aware of the overall spend, he did not "micro-manage" how the money was spent.

Then a document emerged only a few weeks ago which showed that he had, indeed, signed off on a budget for Irish Water's establishment costs, including on areas such as IT, customer billing and registration and support services, all contracted out to external bodies.

Ah-ha, but the document did not contain the word "consulting" so that was alright then. And the Government also announced that he had discharged all his responsibilities "exactly in accordance with his legal requirements".

So neither is that an issue, apparently. So how will he get things done in Brussels? In this regard too he need have no fears. Jean Claude recently spoke of how his commission will be more "political", that four Vice Presidents will be appointed for the first time, each a former Prime Minister in Europe.

You can be sure our man will be at home with them, just as he was at home with Enda Kenny when they were getting things done, like securing his leadership against a challenge from his opponents in Fine Gael and then winning a general election second time of asking.

And their rescuing of the economy, of course, on a programme devised by Fianna Fail when it had a gun held to its head by Europe.

Now Enda has embarked on a year long campaign to be elected a second time, the outcome of which may see Big Phil re-appointed to Brussels for another term, on a salary of more than €300,000 a year.

Then he will return home a statesman, no less, and take his place on a few corporate boards of international repute as others have done before him, because that is also the way things are done.

To win that election, Enda will need the electorate to stop thinking about what was last week described as cronyism and stroke politics, and to think about the economy instead; or rather to think about economic projections over the next few years and what Michael Noonan might do with it.

Indeed, I am informed that at least four members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party stood up in a meeting last week to 'so what' the appointment of a party hack to the board of IMMA and to urge colleagues to lie back and think about the economy.

In this regard, I am told that Michael Noonan may cut the top rate of tax in the budget next month to 40pc, thereby giving the people back €200m of their money; raise the threshold for the Universal Social Charge from €10,000 to €15,000, giving back €88m; increase the threshold to enter the top rate of tax from €32,800 to €33,800, giving back €150m and encourage people on social welfare to take low paid employment by allowing them retain qualified child benefit at €30 a week for the first year, giving back €50m.

And if she can hold her head on this latest cronyism kerfuffle, the cherry on top for Joan Burton will be the restoration of the dole Christmas bonus.

If not precisely this, then some close variation will be contained in the first of two budgets aimed at buying the next election, because that is the way things are done.

The Government make no bones about this: it is widely reported that the last time they faced into an election, at the start of the Celtic Tiger, Fine Gael and Labour now regret that they did not embark on a more simple version of vote-buying than the complicated version they did undertake, which was to trick about with tax bands. It seems things may not be done like that anymore.

So when the kerfuffle about the stuffing of a party hack on a state board dies away, and when Big Phil is snugly ensconced in Brussels, enjoying comfortable lunches with Jean Claude, and doing a deal with Putin, we will turn our minds in earnest to the next election.

According to our opinion poll last weekend, 29pc of people are still undecided as to who they will vote for in the election, roughly the same as it has been since we began these polls, or maybe a little lower.

So the vast majority of the so-called "disillusioned" are as disillusioned as ever, more so, I would say, after the events of last week.

In the elections just gone, they went for Sinn Fein and Independents, a mixed bunch really, who according to some accounts, are not proving particularly adept at getting things done at a local level.

In other words, everything is still to play for between now and the next election, in around 14 months, at a time when Enda, and his backroom team, are starting to make schoolboy mistakes.

They are in a bind now, out of which there is limited option to manoeuvre, none of which are palatable: the damage is done.

Having sacrificed Big Phil for the greater good in Europe and with Frank Flannery also gone for his own troubles, a rising economy may not be enough - or the benefits not be felt in time - for Enda Kenny to secure a second term.

What remains to be seen is whether Bill Clinton's maxim will hold: will the next election be about the economy, stupid; or will the 29pc stand by their demand for a new way of doing things, will they say - No! - no more is this the way things are done.

As sure as Charlie Haughey actually did fall off a horse, you can be sure that Enda Kenny remains of the view that it will still be about the economy. And he may be right, stupid.

Sunday Independent

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