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John Downing: Kenny's mettle will be tested as two vital issues come to a head

SO NOW it finally gets interesting for Enda Kenny, as two long-promised controversies – about abortion legislation and public service pay savings – reach crunch time.

After two years, the Taoiseach has grounds to argue that things are in reasonable nick at his end of the Coalition. Yesterday's RedC poll showed no great change in poll rankings, with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail largely solidified.

And yesterday's Sunday Independent revelations about secretly-taped conversations concerning abortion sum up the scale of the challenge which Mr Kenny and Eamon Gilmore have always faced. The paper shows that there is a sizeable group within Labour who have for more than a decade wanted to see abortion availability in Ireland widened beyond the scope of the X Case – something FG conservatives fear.

This intriguing report and other revelations about a building intensity of feeling within the conservative wing of Fine Gael show us that the abortion debate is headed towards a febrile phase.

It is time for Messrs Kenny and Gilmore to variously calm, reassure, hector and bully their respective troops. It is now vital that the heads of the Protection of Maternal Life Bill are cleared by Cabinet tomorrow to signal that matters are being handled with calm and competence.

Reports of a wide-scale revolt within Fine Gael appear exaggerated, while suggestions of a new party grouping emerging seem hysterical. Wise heads at Leinster House count up to 15 FG TDs and senators with serious concerns around the X Case suicide clause in the emerging abortion legislation.

But many of those 15 are seeking reasons to stay on-side. So far, those seriously contemplating voting against legislation can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Part of Mr Kenny's job will be to minimise the numbers 'going overboard'. In that regard, yesterday's reports about the longer-term ambitions of some within Labour are not helpful – but they can be overcome.

Fianna Fail's intentions on this vexed issue are far from clear – especially to those within Fianna Fail. In his strident ard fheis speech on Saturday night, party leader Micheal Martin, did not actually mention the 'a-word' at all. The afternoon sessions saw three motions passed by membership which stressed the party's so-called 'pro-life' stance – one of these rejected the prospect of legislating for the X Case.

Depending on your point of view, this either made things easier or harder for Mr Martin and his parliamentary colleagues. Just like FG, some FF TDs and senators have serious problems about the Government's planned legislation. But others of their FF colleagues believe, perhaps quite correctly, that there is little broad future public support to be gained from obstructing this legislation.

For now, however, there is some scope for Mr Martin to have fun pointing up the Government's apparent disarray – always assuming that Fianna Fail do not end up showing similar divisions. On the second topic troubling the Coalition, Mr Martin left nobody in any doubt.

On Saturday night he staked a big claim on the lower-tier public service worker vote which has long powered Fianna Fail, especially in Dublin. It was a blatant bid to ensure that, as this group deserts Labour, it will return to Fianna Fail and not end up backing Sinn Fein.

There are few political options as straightforward as this for Mr Martin. Unsurprisingly, he did not mention that in the past 25 years Fianna Fail almost always had some sweeteners to lure public service unions into eight successive public service pay deals.

Instead the FF leader homed in on failed government tactics in the recent union vote, alternating bribery with threats and efforts to divide and conquer.

The more accurate assessment is that the Government, and more realistic union leaders, could not sell more pay cuts to workers. But that does not alter the signs that Mr Kenny is headed into a bitter battle with the public services.

The Taoiseach is about to show what he is made of. If he can guide his party through the abortion minefield, and rely on Mr Gilmore to do so, he will have achieved something creditable. That would just leave the little matter of 300,000 public service workers threatening industrial action.

One suspects that, of the two challenges, the public service pay row will prove the more difficult. But either way we are heading into very interesting political times – a description all seasoned politicians dread.

Irish Independent