Sunday 18 August 2019

Rent row shows the Coalition how hard it is to get your house in order

'After weeks of very public disagreement between Environment Minister Alan Kelly (pictured) and Finance Minister Michael Noonan over rent certainty, a compromise has been cobbled together'
'After weeks of very public disagreement between Environment Minister Alan Kelly (pictured) and Finance Minister Michael Noonan over rent certainty, a compromise has been cobbled together'

Shane Coleman

It seems peace has finally broken out between two of the Cabinet's big beasts.

After weeks of very public disagreement between Environment Minister Alan Kelly and Finance Minister Michael Noonan over rent certainty, a compromise has been cobbled together.

The big question Fine Gael and Labour TDs must be asking is why did it take so long for common sense to prevail?

The long, drawn-out spat has been damaging to the Coalition for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it left it open to the 'Nero fiddles while Rome burns' charge. There is a crisis in the housing sector and yet all the Government could produce was an impasse.

Secondly, it created a perception of serious disunity at the heart of Government.

Much of the blame for this has to lie with Mr Kelly. He is fighting for his very political survival in Tipperary at the moment and perhaps everything needs to be viewed in that context. He certainly seems very keen to be seen as a no-nonsense minister in a hurry to get things done - even if that means publicly standing on the toes of colleagues, particularly Fine Gael ones, in Cabinet.

He seems to revel, a little too much, in his AK47 nickname. There are rumours of difficult relationships with civil servants. And he has seemed isolated even in his own party. Certainly, the Tánaiste wasn't falling over herself to back him up on rent control.

Mr Noonan was hardly taking an ideological stance - if he was, Joan Burton would have taken a far tougher line than she did.

He just believed (rightly) that the problems in the housing sector are extremely complex. And, based on research his department had undertaken, rent controls might actually make the situation worse.

They are certainly no panacea. The package that will be unveiled by the Coalition next week will contain measures designed to increase the supply of housing - that is at the heart of all the problems, including high rents. Putting so much emphasis on rent control was a mistake. Doing so when it could have been delivered was an even bigger one.

To be fair to Kelly, rents are hardly a massive issue in his constituency, so it does seem on this one he is motivated by a desire to do good. But politics is about delivering what is achievable: If you look for 10 things and get eight, that's a good result. The feeling in Government, even among those who like Mr Kelly, is that the Environment Minister dug a hole for himself by insisting on 10 out of 10 and that this very deal could have been reached weeks ago.

Ordinarily, such spats are quickly forgotten. But the timing of this one has been particularly unfortunate. Stability is supposedly the Coalition's biggest selling point for the General Election, but there has been little sign of it on display in Government Buildings.

It's smart politics for Fine Gael and Labour to play the stability card. Election campaigns historically are fought on one of two themes: 'Time for change' or 'Don't let the other crowd mess it up'. The Coalition successfully adopted the first one in 2011 and it's now going to go for the second option this time around.

It'll be pretty simple: 'The choice is Fine Gael and Labour, which has successfully brought the country back from the abyss; Fianna Fáil, who led us to the brink of disaster; or Sinn Féin and co, who'll bring us down the same road'.

That 'stability' line has been road tested in focus groups and by all accounts it goes down well with voters.

The problem is, however, that you cannot credibly sell the 'stability' message if the public face of the Government is anything but stable.

Enda Kenny, belatedly, realised that when he pulled the plug on the November general election date, accepting that, given Labour was bitterly opposed to it, it wouldn't make for a very harmonious re-election campaign.

But there's been no shortage of disharmony on display elsewhere. Aside from Kelly v Noonan, there's been the fall-out from Eamon Gilmore's book and his "shot at dawn" comments.

And then there's the Taoiseach himself and his latest gaffe on the Army and ATMs. Voters don't like the idea of the Taoiseach going abroad and saying silly things, particularly if they feel he is doing it just to make himself look good - which he clearly was.

'Stability' also implies competence. Leaving yourself open to being described as an "eejit" by the opposition clearly jars with that.

The next six weeks are arguably the most important period for this Government, if it wants to be re-elected. Once the Christmas break is over, we're effectively into election mode and there's a whole other dynamic at play.

But between now and the middle of December, the Coalition must set the news agenda instead of reacting to it. The narrative needs to be one of calm, effective administration - the political equivalent of a football team playing it tight, keeping a few clean sheets and nicking the odd goal here and there.

In other words, 'stability'. Or to stay with the football analogy, not the Jose Mourinho of this season - who Kelly has been accused of resembling in recent days - but the Mourinho, and Chelsea, of last.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' at 10am on

Irish Independent

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