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Kenny must get back to the real world - or he's dead in the water

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton. Picture: Tom Burke

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton. Picture: Tom Burke

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton. Picture: Tom Burke

Early one morning in March 2011, a few days after Fine Gael and Labour were swept into power on the crest of what Enda Kenny had proclaimed to be a "democratic revolution", a political reporter bumped into the new Taoiseach as he walked from his city centre apartment to his office in Government Buildings.

The journalist expressed surprise that the Fine Gael leader was continuing with this ritual now that he was Taoiseach, but Enda Kenny declared that he was determined not to get sucked into the Leinster House bubble, where he would lose touch with what the man and woman on the street were thinking. In short, he wanted to stay in the real world.

Alas for the Taoiseach, over three-and-a-half years after his well-intentioned declaration, it's clear that he and his Government have been engulfed by that bubble with the inexorability of a black hole gobbling planets.

It's not as if the Coalition wasn't warned quite some time ago that the political consciousness of the nation was on the march. On October 5 last year, a downcast Taoiseach stood in the courtyard of Dublin Castle in the wake of the shock defeat of the referendum to abolish the Seanad. "Sometimes in politics you get a wallop," he observed that day.

That wallop should've served as a boot up the rear of a complacent Coalition. It had lost what had been regarded in government circles as a slam-dunk vote to abolish what many citizens believed was a toothless, expensive sanctuary for failed politicians and/or political cronies. Moreover, the Yes vote had been backed by three of the four mainstream parties - Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein.

But the electorate voted No. Battered by austerity measures, it had grown mistrustful. It sensed a stroke was afoot. The electorate felt that too much power in the hands of a single chamber was a bad idea. Thirteen months ago, the wallop was a warning-shot - yes, Paddy wants to know the story, but Paddy also had things to say and was increasingly resentful that the Coalition didn't appear to be paying a blind bit of attention.

Then the voters issued a second warning last May in the European and local elections, when both Fine Gael and, particularly, the Labour Party lost seats in the city and county councils and in the European Parliament. By this stage, there was growing discontent over the lack of clarity surrounding water charges, despite the Taoiseach's earlier promise that the rates would be announced before the mid-term elections.

But still the Government failed to grasp just how deep the fault-line now ran between the general public and their public representatives. Lulled perhaps into a false sense of complacency by the relative lack of widespread protest over a succession of austerity measures, the inhabitants of Bubbleland have been left aghast by the current massive unrest over the water charges.

Thirteen months on, as the unrest has filtered onto the corridors of power both through the recent massive marches but also via that traditional political canary in the coal mine - unhappy backbench TDs - the Government has now received the message loud and clear.

And the realisation has dawned on the Taoiseach that the next seven days may well be make-or-break time as the political ground shifts beneath him.

Over the next week he will have to negotiate this perilous terrain, which is also dotted with potential banana-skins. He must find a figure for water charges which is acceptable to both the public and also to a Tanaiste who appears to have dug her heels in over the issue. He must also keep a close eye on the rumbling controversy involving civil servant whistleblower Gerard Ryan, who has made allegations of significant tax evasion in the past by prominent politicians.

The Taoiseach also needs to quell fretful members of his own parliamentary party who are incredulous that the water fiasco has followed on so closely from the farrago over the nomination of John McNulty for the Seanad by-election.

"We genuinely thought that once we got the October Budget through without anything blowing up in our faces, that things would settle down. We're not, if you'll pardon the pun, dead in the water yet. But we are one more banana-skin away from serious trouble," said one senior party figure.

There is a real danger that the current narrative that paints the Government as arrogant - a narrative not helped by recent snide comments regarding the protest marches by EU Commissioner Phil Hogan and Finance Minister Michael Noonan - will become set in stone. Yesterday, former Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery warned that the Government must stop acting like a "dictator" and that it had a matter of months to repair relations with the electorate.

The Taoiseach insisted last week that his Government has "listened carefully" to the public anger - but his response needs to prove that it has taken this lesson to heart. Or the only sound he will hear on his walks to work is a single bell tolling for the Coalition.

Irish Independent