Monday 18 December 2017

Time for Bruton to sharpen his knives

Now the penny has finally dropped it is clear that Fine Gael won't be victorious with Kenny as leader, writes Jody Corcoran

For a while it seemed as if Black Thursday would be another of those days that come and go, like so many before, to leave behind a provocation of shock and anger, and, sickly trailing, an overwhelming sense of disillusion, piteous in nature.

We have had such days before, several of them, these past two years: on three budget days, or on any of the given days that officialdom has updated, in all of its horror, the unfolding disaster that is Anglo and what we call the banks.

Until now the tendency had been to take note and revert to a life more ordinary just as soon as the newspaper headlines had moved on to a dolly mixture of other events, irrelevancies, until the arrival of the next such shattering moment -- it will be in November -- after which we will move on again, layer heaped upon layer.

Such a reaction, in a way, speaks volumes to human resilience: it can say just as much about human nature, too, the blind wish that none of this has to do with me, that it may pass and leave me be, relatively unscathed -- and that, if it does not, well, we will have to deal with that, too.

People tend to get on with it: work, dole queue, school run, family, sport, life. Dublin was alive to the sound of lives being lived last weekend: pubs, across divides, were filled with laughter, tempered a little, as, no doubt, they will be again this and for many weekends to come. But Black Thursday did not turn out to be just another one of those days. There was something different in the national mood, widely evident from about 11am, firmer in its intent, emerging in the psyche, as the day wore on.

Maybe it was that Thursday, September 30, was the day the penny finally dropped, a loud clang at the bottom of a ruined, empty wishing well, a long time coming, dropping slowly.

I suspect the moment arrived when Brian Lenihan said that he would not have to close hospitals and schools.

There was something in the way he said it, the tone of his voice, the look in his eye: it had the feel of classic parapraxis, almost Freudian in the moment, as if he had just let slip what he feared he would have to do.

The reality was different, of course. He had been asked a specific question: his reply, the manner of its broadcast, a few fleeting seconds out of context -- that was the moment the country seemed to sit up.

Interestingly, in its awakening, the anger seemed to recede a little, although it is probably too early to say to what extent. I am sure the anger will return, but the piteous disillusion may be gone forever.

Lenihan also said this last week: "Anger is not a policy."

The Finance Minister did a superb job of assuagement on Thursday -- of the public at least, but not of the vultures otherwise known as international investors, who were patched into a conference call with Lenihan on Friday.

If evidence were needed as to how dangerous it is right now, a report in the Daily Telegraph yesterday stated: "Between 200 and 500 investors are understood to have been on the call and as they realised their lines were not muted many began to heckle Lenihan. Some traders began making what one banker on the call described as 'chimp sounds', while another cried out 'dive, dive'. A third man said 'short Ireland'.

In place of anger, then, and of disillusion among the public, on Thursday I felt I had detected, for the first time, real stirrings of that much abused term: patriotism.

Neither can policy be woven of patriotism, of course, just as surely as it can not be of anger, and love of country will mean nothing to the money men who are circling Ireland. But it may well be the start of something else, another shift in the political plates here, perhaps.

I listened carefully to Lenihan on Black Thursday. Later still, he said this: "I do not detect any anger towards me." He was right. There is no anger towards him, none worthwhile; none of the kind that Labour speaks of all the time, which it stokes so readily, as is so easy to do.

If indeed Black Thursday has ushered in, or has displaced anger with a new sense of urgency, then that may prove fatal to Labour's overarching strategy to lead the next government.

There are, at most, 270 days to save the country: the day has finally arrived, therefore, when an answer to the question is required: "What will you do?" Labour has not yet answered that question, not satisfactorily.

The clamour for a General Election will start now.

A plan must be put in place in November, a budgetary outline for the next four years; enough, at least on paper, to close the gap between receipts and expenditure to 3 per cent of GDP from its current 32 per cent.

The question, the only question must be: "What will you do?"

The Government will get to introduce one of those four budgets, maybe two, for which it has a mandate or sorts; which, in itself, raises another question: is a fresh mandate required for all four years?

But that question also fails to take account of an underlying truth, that there is precious little, in terms of economic policy, between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and even Labour.

Whatever differences there may be are subsumed in the greatest reality of them all: as of now, this country will run out of money next June: "What will you do?"

If that is allowed to happen, the IMF, or a version of it, will breach the gates to give a form of life to Brian Lenihan's unconscious fear: schools and hospitals will be closed, unceremoniously; dole payments and old-age pensions slashed, and taxes increased.

Anger is of no use. It will not save our schools and hospitals, nor our wallets. It will do the opposite, in fact; unchannelled, it will waste energy, dilute ambition and threaten independence.

Labour is leading the clamour for an election, that it may achieve power in the white heat of anger, a currency not yet entirely spent, but which is running out, hourglass-like.

For Fianna Fail it is all too late. It will continue, with the Greens, for as long as sustainable. It may even garner a certain respect, if it somehow manages to dig us out of this mess, the kind of respect which might save a few seats. That is the best it can hope for.

The focus, really, is on Fine Gael this weekend. In all likelihood, the election will come within the six months. With each passing week it is more evident that Fine Gael will not be victorious with Enda Kenny as leader.

Kenny believes the opinion polls to be a temporary blip, a minor irritation that will right themselves accordingly, in due course. But all of the evidence screams otherwise.

I am given to understand that Richard Bruton, or a proxy, may approach his leader this week to ask him to stand down, not just for the good of Fine Gael, but, at this stage, it must be regarded for the good of the country, too. It is one way of doing it, I suppose, but I do not think it will work.

As leader, Bruton and his allies are prepared to take brave decisions, not just in Government, but in opposition, too. A change of strategy will be immediately apparent, and it can not come soon enough.

Bruton and his allies believe they have the support of maybe five TDs/senators who voted for Kenny in the June heave; if they have it would be enough, easily so, to sway the argument this time.

At this stage it is uncertain how Kenny will react, but I imagine he will fight, encouraged to do so by instinct, and his supporters -- those who are sustaining him for personal advantage, when it is not about that anymore, if it ever should be, but when it is about a battle to save the country from the whim of a bunch of wide boys, polished up in pinstripe suits, coming soon to a cinema near you.

If Bruton does go to Kenny again he must know that he needs to go with more than good intent in mind, but with a knife in hand, too. Anything short of that, and the leader will see him off, again, and Fine Gael will sink, sickly trailing, piteous in nature.

Sunday Independent

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