Thursday 21 November 2019

Kenny's challenges could prove politically fatal

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny
John Downing

John Downing

Enda Kenny is holding a lot of aces as he returns today for his final political year in office.

When you stand back from all the hullabaloo, Mr Kenny looks like the one most likely to be Taoiseach again after the election which must happen some time between late November and April 9 next. Right now, the make-up of the coalition he would lead is anybody's guess.

But Mr Kenny, who will mark a full 40 continuous years as a TD in mid-November, knows well how the old adage about there being "many a slip twixt cup and lip" applies directly to electoral politics. The reality is that this Government faces a huge range of challenges which are politically awkward and could yet prove electorally fatal.

True, Mr Kenny has money to spend. Since last April, we have been told the Government will have at least €1.5bn to spend and we expect this to be evenly divided between tax cuts and increased spending. Much of the money for increased spending is already ear-marked to fund some restoration of public servants' pay cut since the grim days of 2008.

Indeed, seven years of cutbacks and tax hikes have heightened public hunger and the queue of ministers putting pressure on moneybags ministers Noonan and Howlin continues to grow. Defence Minister Simon Coveney was on the offensive last week, with a new defence blueprint making the case for more resources.

Today in Dublin, as the farm unions take to the streets ahead of a major demonstration in Brussels next week, Mr Coveney will feel pressure from his other job as Agriculture Minister. Also today in this newspaper, we report how, one way or another, the health services will require an extra €1.9bn next year.

That extra health tab should put the Government's €1.5bn leeway into a rather different context. But seasoned politicians believe Irish people do not make voting decisions based on the health services. The 2002 general election, which took place against a background of huge health waiting lists and patients on trolleys, graphically illustrated that lesson.

Still, Realpolitik dictates Mr Varadkar must get more. Then we will turn to the demands of Labour leader and Tánaiste Joan Burton for more goodies to distribute from her Department of Social Protection.

Elections across the democratic world have usually been about bribing voters with their own money. This has been very true in Ireland's case and it has not always helped us in the pursuit of medium to long-term stability and prosperity.

There are compelling arguments for reducing our continuing mountain of long-term debt which leaves Ireland still vulnerable to outside shocks arising from expected medium-term increased oil prices and the inevitability of an end to all-time low interest rates.

Pigs will fly before any major party presents itself to voters on a pledge of cutting the national debt. Deferred gratification is not a good election strategy.

In the last Budget, the Government gave away €1bn. The hope was that this, the promise of more, and an end to the disastrous political own-goals of 2014 would lift its popularity.

But it was not to be. Neither was the Fine Gael and Labour TDs' hopes of seeing water charges taken off the election issue list. The problem is that half the nation is not paying; Irish Water failed the EU "market test" to allow investment fund-raising off the Government books; and the reality that non-payers can still get the €100 so-called water conservation grant combined to put the kibosh on that hope.

Then there were the unforeseen happenings which so often bedevil governments. There was a row over Siteserv and the IBRC, which succeeded Anglo Irish Bank, which took too long to park in a special inquiry.

A potential problem from the unforeseen department right now is the much awaited report on the investigation into the controversial departure of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan. We expect its publication any day soon.

Mr Callinan stood down unexpectedly in March 2014. Mr Kenny has denied Opposition allegations that he effectively sacked the Commissioner. Concerns have been raised over why the Taoiseach sent the then-Justice Department secretary general, Brian Purcell, to Mr Callinan's home to highlight Government worries about various issues.

Laws guarding against political interference mean Cabinet agreement, which was not sought by Mr Kenny, is required to remove a Garda Commissioner. The Opposition generally, and Fianna Fáil in particular, is very hopeful this could be the one. But any politically fatal consequences would come as a very major surprise and leave Mr Kenny and his advisers without any competition for "political poker face of the year" award.

The section of the Fennelly Commission report into the Callinan affair was expected to be completed at the start of this year. But the work was hit by a number of delays.

Last Thursday it emerged that Mr Kenny is to be given a copy today, which is also his first day back at work since his summer break. He is line minister responsible and expected to be the only person to be given a full version of the report. So, it would appear to be Mr Kenny's call alone to decide how and when its details are to be made public.

Fianna Fáil's justice spokesman, Niall Collins, has said the report must be made public immediately today as the issues involved are too important to allow for further delay. Whatever the report content, it has the potential to make for a noisy start to the new political season in which no quarter will be asked or given as the general election dominates.

Irish Independent

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