FINALLY we got to see the Taoiseach addressing the nation last night. No one ever expected that it would change very much; no one ever suggested that it would make everything right. However, any attempt by politicians to talk directly to the people and explain their position should be welcomed. Enda Kenny deserves credit for taking this step. There is no doubt that many will criticise what he said and how he said it and that is the very reason his predecessor avoided doing it at all, but he was not scared off by this and that is something positive.
As regards content it came up a little short. Maybe this was inevitable. However, Enda Kenny has a core team of speechwriters who seem to follow a set pattern and last night it would have been nice to see them diverge from this but perhaps the pressure was so great the wanted to stick to a tried and tested route. The address had one central plank, try to say the exact opposite of everything the last government said so that we can sound different. The problem of course is that this government has been happy to follow the policies of the last government in practice and Enda Kenny knows he does not entirely disagree with some of the sentiments they expressed.
However, he was trying to put a little distance between himself and what had gone before. A few months ago Enda Kenny made a very well received speech in the Dail attacking the Vatican. However, one the glow of the fine words had faded people began to realise that that speech actually sought to shift blame well away from the island of Ireland, well away from Irish church leaders and more particularly well away from the shameful practices of the Irish state that allowed the situation develop. Attacking the Vatican made for good words, but it did nothing to address the real issues of how the Irish church leaders and more particularly the Irish state itself had failed the victims of abuse.
Last night Enda Kenny came across as a man who genuinely wants to be honest with people and who wants his government to be trusted. The sheer numbers of broken promises that follow the government have left people uneasy though. The speechwriters slipped back into the role of trying to apportion blame, it was at this point his address became more suited to the Dail chamber than to the Leader of the country addressing all the people regardless of their political persuasion or view. The speech needed to focus on where this government intends to take society rather than where we have come from as there are other people who must answer that question. When Enda talked about the time ahead he was measured but there was little effort to genuinely inspire.
The speech came on a day when Fine Gael was still flying high in the opinion polls. This address will have done nothing to harm that. Most people will just be glad that at least it was done. The budget however may be an entirely different story. Without doubt we will get a very firm picture of the kind of society the government wants on the back of it.
What we do know is that the public still see Fine Gael as the best bet. Despite broken promises at constituency level Fine Gael drew its support in large part from private sector workers and from ex-FF voters who understood the reasoning behind cuts. Unfortunately for Labour their support was drawn from many public sector workers and some ex-FF voters that were not at ease with the cuts. This vote is still very unhappy and now feels that the new government is even harsher than the last one.
However it is notable that some of this vote looks like returning to FF, who according to the polls is the second most popular party although still very far behind FG. It is a signal perhaps that the Irish people are coming to a position where they no longer believe in magic bullets or easy solutions. Some government backbenchers will feel very uneasy at even the slightest sign of life from the Fianna Fail animal. The challenge is quite clear, Labour cannot allow Sinn Fein to erode it from the other side by taking its harder left wing vote and Fine Gael must ensure that continues to maintain its high poll ratings.
To do this the government may have to rethink some strategies, the approach cannot be so single minded and only the right blend of policies from both Labour and Fine Gael can shore up the position. Too much in either direction and voters may start regret their decision of last February.
Johnny Fallon is a political consultant