Friday 23 February 2018

Cabinet has much to reflect on in the shadow of Ben Bulben

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny
The current cabinet
John Downing

John Downing

Under the shadow of Ben Bulben, in the ancestral home of Ireland's first female cabinet minister, Enda Kenny will today chair his last Government meeting before the summer break.

When next they meet, probably on September 2, they will be effectively in election mode, irrespective of the timing of polling day.

Mr Kenny still insists he will go to the end of the term next spring. Others within the Fine Gael fold believe there will be a pre-Christmas election.

This is Mr Kenny's first Cabinet meeting outside of Dublin since taking office as Taoiseach on March 9, 2011. In boom times, under Bertie Ahern, there were frequent sallies forth by the cabinet to pleasant and leafy locations around the country: Ballymascanlon in Louth, Muckross House in Killarney, Ballaghaderreen in Roscommon, and other locales.

Government officials insist that this move out of Dublin is not a harking back to Bertie Ahern's boom-times. They argue that this Lissadell meeting is well thought-out and timely.

"It is to mark the 150th year of WB Yeats's birth, given his links to Sligo and Lissadell, and it also honours the home of Ireland's first woman government minister, Countess Markievicz," a Government spokesman told the Irish Independent.

But today's meeting will not feature weighty decisions given the timing and location. It may, however, offer some opportunities for informal political stock-taking.

Mr Kenny's old strategic mentor, Frank Flannery, this week advised a joint Fine Gael-Labour election campaign. That would appear unlikely - but some form of hand-holding remains to be worked out.

There are four personnel changes since Mr Kenny held his first such pre-summer holiday meeting in very different circumstances as a new Taoiseach in July 2011. On the Fine Gael side, Mr Kenny's 'political minder,' Phil Hogan has been exported to the EU Commission in Brussels and Jimmy Deenihan has dropped to the junior ranks.

On Labour's team, former leaders Eamon Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte have gone and Joan Burton has become Tánaiste.

Fine Gael have grounds for being the happier contemplating the summer recess. Labour continue to struggle with very poor poll ratings. A year of Joan Burton's leadership has not improved their fortunes.

The summer Dáil recess should bring some small lift in the popularity ratings of the governing parties in the absence of their being called to book by the Opposition on television, radio and in the newspapers. But Labour election planning will be about damage limitation.

All ministers around the Cabinet table today will reflect that elections frequently claim "big scalps", with cabinet members losing their Dáil seats. Any way you look at it, today's gathering is the beginning of the end.

Irish Independent

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