Monday 21 May 2018

Martin books Fianna Fail a relaxing summer break as Kenny feels the heat

'New Politics' has given the opposition ample ammunition for attack, and left government defences weak, writes Eoin O'Malley

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke

Eoin O'Malley

The Dail rose last Thursday for a long, long break. There appeared to have been an atmosphere of the end of school atmosphere about the place. All of them are tired. And they've a reason to be. They've been campaigning pretty solidly since last November, there was the election, the long government formation, and politics since then hasn't really settled into a pattern. Maybe only the last few weeks have given us a sense of what the politics of the 32nd Dail will be like, or how long it might last.

Looking back on the political season we can see there have been few winners and few outright losers. Most are looking around nervously.

When they get their school reports Micheal Martin will be happiest. Always hard-working and eager, if a little nervous and insecure, in the last year he's gone from possibly the first leader of Fianna Fail to never become Taoiseach to being the most likely next Taoiseach. Fianna Fail's strong position in the polls reflects its strong position in the Dail. It's the party that is making most of the running, forcing the Government to concede. Martin is credited as a strategic genius who masterminded the Fianna Fail resurgence.

Back in 2011, some serious commentators questioned whether Fianna Fail could survive in a world where it was no longer number one. Martin combined hard work and smart decisions to get it back where it is, but he also relied on luck. Sometimes parties can do nothing obviously wrong but still get a poor outcome. Sometimes things seem to go your way.

Martin has been helped along by others' mistakes. He delivered a competent campaign for Fianna Fail, but he must have been surprised (and delighted) at how strategically inept the Fine Gael campaign was. This pushed Fianna Fail closer to its target, and Martin made the right decision to keep the party out of government (not that it was even his decision to make), and to avoid an immediate second election. That gave his new TDs a chance to bed in. But his party's position in the polls has much more to do with the Government's uncertain start.

Enda's report will observe that the normally bubbly and garrulous Taoiseach hasn't been putting in his usual performances lately. Kenny will have felt relief that he managed to form a government, but this relief was short-lived, as his job is far from secure. Enda works best when he has tasks set for him. In his first government he had to manage the Bailout programme and keep the Government together. After the IMF and the ECB left, the Government wasn't as sure of itself.

It's been worse since Kenny was re-elected as Taoiseach. The Government doesn't seem to know what it wants to do, even if it could do it. Enda lurches from over-confidence to reticence. Over-confidence yields blunders, such as the botched post-Brexit plan. The gaffes give way to his absences - the plane is on auto-pilot. His legacy was supposed to have been saving the Irish economy and delivering consecutive Fine Gael governments. He may claim to have succeeded in these, but no one is really convinced.

Kenny may not have much time to deliver on his legacy. His party knows that it can't afford to keep him as leader for an election, and it has limited control over the timing of that election. Before the election Fine Gael had the support of nearly a third of the electorate, with an expectation this would rise. Now its support is below a quarter, with the sense it could fall further. Kenny won't be leading the fightback. He has always shown himself to be steely when under fire. He's good at surviving. But his legacy can't merely be survival.

Kenny made a mistake in not cutting a deal immediately on the leadership. He should have gone to the top three Fine Gael challengers and said he'd step down immediately as leader, but that he would remain as Taoiseach. No new leader could guarantee the acquiescence of Micheal Martin in electing him or her Taoiseach. Martin wouldn't want to give his eventual opponent in the next election the advantage of the mantle of Taoiseach. Anyway with this arrangement Fine Gael could distinguish its message from the Government message, and Fine Gael would have someone willing and able to stand up to Kenny. Kenny could be the statesman who made 'New Politics' work.

As it is, 'New Politics' only seems to be working - if by 'working' we mean setting up commissions for review. Only Simon Coveney's housing plan and Simon Harris's deal on drug prices give the impression of a government in action. The Rebuilding Ireland plan is not within Coveney's gift. It may fall apart as soon as it relies on the action of others. Councillors in Dublin, who seem to love strategic plans, oppose action if it means upsetting a few voters. In any case, the plan is replete with reviews and vague commitments.

One might wonder why Sinn Fein benefited from the Government's apparent failings. After all, the Government is only there with Fianna Fail's permission. Surely Sinn Fein is the real opposition party. It should be hoovering up support, but it's made no progress. This might be because the new Dail doesn't really suit it. Sinn Fein, and especially its leader, Gerry Adams, doesn't really like parliamentary politics. Like the Alphabet Soup parties on the left, some in Sinn Fein have always been more comfortable outside the gates of Leinster House shouting in. Unlike the Alphabet Soup, Sinn Fein is interested in power. However, some of the things it asked for are being conceded, and having for so long been a party of protest it is struggling to get used to this.

Sinn Fein's problem is that Fianna Fail is better at opposition. Even if part of the Rebuilding Ireland plan works, Fianna Fail is ready to take credit. Barry Cowen welcomed the plan as largely its own, but warning Coveney that if he didn't deliver there'd be hell to pay. Coveney can't really win.

Is the same true of the Independents in Government? The accepted wisdom is that small parties in government get battered. But they don't always. As long as they know how powerful they are and pick their issues, they can thrive. They were right to stand up to Kenny's non-decision on Mick Wallace's abortion bill. It might cause tension in Government, but that tension is needed to assert its independence.

Ultimately, the ministerial Independents (and their government partners) know that it's in all their interest to keep this Government going. There are no major ideological differences within the Government. Still we can expect some more scrapes with Fine Gael, but probably nothing uncontrollable. The Government's lifespan will be decided by Fianna Fail. Martin wants to be Taoiseach, but he's in no rush. Fianna Fail has to be seen to allow at least one budget through (but it won't make it easy). Martin will hope the Government continues to flail from blunder to gaffe, by which time he can put it out of its misery 'in the national interest'. That still looks likely in 2017, but he could let it could go to 2018.

Only Martin can rest easy over the summer break. But most likely he'll be swotting up for next term.

Eoin O'Malley is a senior lecturer in political science in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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