Monday 16 September 2019

Kenny's legacy? Economic wins and health, housing and justice defeats

Enda Kenny led Fine Gael with relentless energy, tenacity and determination over 15 years Picture: Tom Burke
Enda Kenny led Fine Gael with relentless energy, tenacity and determination over 15 years Picture: Tom Burke
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

The political commentariat drew contrasting conclusions from Enda Kenny's announcement of an announcement at this week's Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting.

My view is a 'Dignity Deal' has been facilitated whereby he'll announce his resignation as party leader in late March, followed by internal elections and a Dáil nomination for a new Taoiseach on Tuesday, April 26 - fulfilling Kenny's milestone ambitions to attain his 66th birthday at the top and be the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach.

Any deviation from this timetable could result in his final lap of honour becoming nasty rather than classy. The singular thing TDs care most about, beyond all else, is securing their re-election. Kenny hosting the Pope in 2018 is inimical to that requirement. And months more uncertain instability can only deliver more favourable opinion polls for Fianna Fáil with a swing of up to 20 seats possible.

On Wednesday night, I unburdened myself of this analysis on TV3's 'Pat Kenny Show'. Pat threw me one unanticipated question: "What will be Enda Kenny's legacy?" My instant reaction was that historians would credit his administration with the economic recovery of a successful exit from the Troika bailout.

Having had a few days to consider this more deeply, I believe the new Fine Gael leadership face severe headwinds overcoming the inherited Kenny legacy.

There was sound, even excellent, work from 2011. But since the bailout exit of December 2013, Fine Gael's primary achievements are confined to employment and investment growth. Reducing unemployment to 7pc and restoring total jobs beyond two million is impressive.

However, there's growing disgruntlement amongst those at work that pre-crash personal income tax revenues were €12bn and are now €20bn - hiked from 27pc to 40pc of the total tax take - from an almost identical workforce size.

The deepest disdain towards the Government relates to health service failures of waiting lists and trolley crises. Fine Gael's folly of Universal Health Insurance was an egregious policy misadventure. Since its abandonment, there's been no political direction in health.

Extra cash, putting out industrial relations bushfires and ad hoc pronouncements are no substitute for considered strategy. The Government doesn't even know the desired balance between public and private health provision or whether the HSE should survive.

The homelessness crisis, unaffordable rents and endemic repossession court proceedings amounts to an almost catastrophic housing policy failure. Despite specific commitments in the current Programme for Government, 35,000 households remain in unsustainable long-term mortgage arrears with no solutions to retain the roof over their head.

New house construction levels are still stuck at around 15,000 per annum - half of what's needed. Nama's treatment of developers mean those reestablished are focusing on commercial rather than residential projects. No tax measures have been proposed to incentivise lower house construction costs and ensure affordability. Instead, inducements to increase housing demand can only drive up home prices.

The most contemporary cause of the final Kenny downfall is the Garda whistleblower controversy. Establishing a Tribunal may provide eventual transparency in the specifics of Maurice McCabe's maltreatment, but it won't address the critical systemic causes of the crisis. When former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan "retired" in March 2014, it was self-evident that independent Garda oversight needed major modernisation.

The appointment of an existing deputy commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, to the top job, as opposed to a completely external appointee, represented the soft option in confronting cultural problems. The Toland report explicitly excoriated the Department of Justice as a basketcase requiring radical reform. This was bottled by the Cabinet. The chickens came home to roost three years later, because ministers funked fundamental change.

Kenny led Fine Gael with relentless energy, tenacity and determination over 15 years. His optimum previously unforeseen skill was to reduce myriads of complex problems often to binary issues of decision-making. He was chairman, rather than chief executive, effectively delegating well.

His people skills of charm and persuasion were always evident, as he is a gregarious and congenial character on a personal level.

The criticisms and failings must be collectively attributed rather than just Kenny taking all the blame.

There's been a hierarchy of Fine Gael leadership, not a solitary boss: Michael Noonan, always power behind throne; James Reilly as deputy leader; Frances Fitzgerald as Tánaiste.

Beyond the economy, the shortcomings in health, housing and justice represent their and Kenny's immediate legacy.

As the focus intensifies around Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, there'll be a nationwide roadshow, TDs jockeying for position to attain the top jobs and all sorts of entertaining disloyalty and skulduggery.

Fine Gael supporters should look beyond the media obsession with personality politics. The key challenge facing the party at the next election is overcoming ongoing unresolved issues that impact greatly on ordinary people's lives.

This Dáil hasn't provided the basis for strong government. New Politics has provided the weakest government in the State's history - unable to elevate itself beyond short-term survival. Dependent on opponents, it is hamstrung, paralysed and, at times, incoherently dysfunctional.

This additional year of indecision must also be appended to Kenny's latter legacy; even if not entirely of his own making, given the refusal of other parties to coalesce.

In 1977, after the disastrous electoral rejection of Liam Cosgrave's Fine Gael-lead administration, Garret FitzGerald and Peter Barry fought out a civilised leadership contest.

Subsequently, both men worked together as leader and deputy leader for a decade of combined political success both in opposition and government.

The best case scenario now for the Blueshirts is a smooth Taoiseach transition, followed by serious, thoughtful and honest leadership that will address issues on a longer time horizon than expedient Band-Aid solutions and superficial soundbites to placate the Independent Alliance, protesters or trade unions.

The public will readily tire of endless references to "the party". Fine Gael's period of inward introspection must be minimised. Outside the tribe, the sentiment is 'wouldya care?'. When political parties fail to do their primary job - serving the people - they inevitably lose market share.

In the short-term, Kenny's legacy may amount to a poisoned chalice of prospective electoral woe.

Irish Independent

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