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Thomas Molloy: Kenny's lack of core beliefs may come to surprise us all

OTHER countries do philosophy -- we have the catechism. A catechism is useful when life is simple but it is not much good when things are complicated and new problems jump out at you every week.

The election campaign, which draws to a close today, has produced lots of catechisms but little talk of the philosophy behind the policies. We have had many "whats" and some "hows" but very few "whys".

That's a pity because the next Government's beliefs and instincts are likely to be far more important than the policies that are neatly laid out in the parties' glossy manifestoes.

Philosophy will play a role, whatever happens next, while policies depend on the accuracy of the various growth forecasts and the outcome of many events that are outside the control of the next Taoiseach.

All those policies could come seriously unstuck if a few more large debts are found lurking in a bank's balance sheets, if more riots erupt in a souk in the Middle East or a drug manufactured here suddenly starts to create side effects.

While Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin had a point when he criticised Fine Gael and Labour during the last leaders' debate for not producing detailed costings, he ignored the fact that his own projections are based on wildly optimistic growth assumptions that almost nobody else shares.

We don't know what will happen but we certainly do need to know what our leaders' instincts will be.

Just how important philosophy is was made clear on that evening in September 2008 when Bank of Ireland chief executive Brian Goggin and Allied Irish Banks chief executive Eugene Sheehy came begging for help from Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen.

The next Taoiseach will face at least one moment like that when there is no road map, no coherent advice and perhaps no right answer -- a moment when the country's most illustrious economists and central bankers disagree. A moment when instinct and philosophy matter and may determine the country's future for the next generation.

Neither Eamon Gilmore nor Enda Kenny are much given to musing aloud about their economic philosophies, so voters are left guessing but some clues can be found in their manifestoes and on the campaign trail.

At first glance, Fine Gael may not look too different to how the party appeared at previous elections but Enda Kenny's Fine Gael is much more pragmatic and far less attached to the old truths than is often appreciated.

The party has flip-flopped several times on the vexed question of what to do with the bondholders. In the past few months, it has advocated paying every cent back to subordinated bondholders, unilateral renegotiation and, more recently, negotiation.

Perhaps equally revealingly, the party has no policy at all on NAMA beyond Michael Noonan's rather homely remark that you cannot unscramble an egg. Enda Kenny appears to have no firm views on whether or not NAMA is a good thing and worth keeping.

This may appear almost cavalier but it can also be seen as a refreshing departure from the past.

It is almost impossible to imagine previous leaders such as Alan Dukes and Garret FitzGerald having no opinion on anything as important as NAMA. Their default philosophy would have been that the banks must be saved at all costs.

Enda Kenny clearly does not think like this and gives every impression of not being wedded to the old orthodoxies of the Fine Gael party.

In fact, Kenny appears to be doing a less articulate impression of the economist John Maynard Keynes, who once replied to somebody who had questioned a policy flip-flop with the retort that: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Labour has displayed more orthodox instincts during the campaign than Fine Gael. Eamon Gilmore's "It's Labour's way or Frankfurt's way" betrayed an old-fashioned philosophy that places the nation state ahead of all other decision-making bodies. The last politician on an international stage to hold those views was probably Margaret Thatcher.

The same instincts were on display in Gilmore's knee-jerk rejection of proposals to abolish compulsory Irish after the Junior Certificate.

Whatever one thinks about the rights and wrongs of keeping Irish compulsory up to the Leaving Cert, there can be no denying that Fine Gael's policy displays a philosophy that is more interested in how things work, rather than why.

LABOUR'S policies owe much to Keynes -- not the Keynes who changed his mind based on new information but rather the Keynes who advocated massive investment in infrastructure and job creation as a means of economic stimulation.

While Labour and Gilmore portray themselves as mould breakers, Keynesian economics is a well-tested philosophy that has worked in some places and ruined others. At this stage, it is as conventional and hackneyed an answer as the answers found in an old catechism.

Kenny may look and sound like an altar boy at times but there is clearly a radical indifference to economic orthodoxy lurking under that perfectly coiffured hair which may yet surprise us all.

Irish Independent