Wednesday 20 November 2019

Enda appears to be dug in for the foreseeable

'More ominously for Enda Kenny, no Fine Gael Taoiseach has been re-elected, and only Garret FitzGerald returned to the office after a period in opposition'

Theresa Reidy

The lull in the political calendar each August delivers news that varies from the weird to the wonderful. This week's pronouncement by the government chief whip Paul Kehoe that he believes Enda Kenny will stay in politics - and not only in politics, but at the top of Irish politics - until the 2020s provided a ripple of distraction at an otherwise quiet time in the news cycle.

Later in the week, senior party figures in Fine Gael were quick to remind us that taoisigh serve at the will of the electorate, a rather important clarification. The discussion that followed Paul Kehoe's contribution is useful, though, and it reminds us of an important feature of Irish politics - long political careers.

Several taoisigh have served multiple terms. Going back to the beginning of the State in 1922, taoisigh have served on average seven years in the office, but there is considerable variation.

Eamon de Valera leads the pack, having served close to 21 years with terms from 1932 to 1948, 1951 to 1954 and 1957 to 1959. Only Bertie Ahern comes close to this record with his stint from 1997 to 2008.

More ominously for Enda Kenny, no Fine Gael Taoiseach has been re-elected, and only Garret FitzGerald (right) returned to the office after a period in opposition.

Fine Gael taoisigh in general have served far shorter terms, with an average of just over five years in power. The Fianna Fail average is close to nine years.

The role of the Taoiseach has evolved over the decades, and elements of the discussions about the presidentialisation of parliamentary politics certainly apply in Ireland as much as in other European countries.

What this really means is that prime ministers are looking a lot more like presidents, and the idea of the prime minister/Taoiseach as the first among equals has less relevance today.

Politics has become more complex, the personality of political leaders has become more important at elections and there is a 24-hour news cycle. All of these changes have contributed to prime ministers taking a more extensive role in political leadership than would have been the case in decades past. Indeed, there is quite a bit of academic research that shows leaders are important, both in government and in opposition.

It is not just taoisigh who spend long terms in office in Ireland - government ministers also have long political careers. Recent work by a research team that included Irish political scientist Conor Little showed Irish ministers on average serve more than eight years in office, several years more than ministers in many other European states.

Unusually, Irish ministers are often re-appointed to different portfolios, either after an election or during a term in office. However, TCD political scientist Michael Gallagher has also outlined that while there is a small number of people catapulted into early ministerial roles, most serve considerable apprenticeships in parliament before their first ministerial appointment.

Until 2011, Ireland had quite a low turnover of TDs at each election. If you exclude retiring TDs, re-election rates hover around 80pc. This is a reasonably high figure by international standards. Adding in the fact that some TDs who lose their seat do so to members of their own parties increases the overall pattern of stability.

The Taoiseach himself is an interesting example of longevity in political life. He is already the longest-serving member of the Dáil, having been first elected in 1975, an unusually long run even by the standards of Irish politics.

All of this changed in 2011 when 76 new TDs were elected to the Dáil. The big question is whether this change will result in shorter political careers for all involved or whether the norm of Irish politics will reassert itself.

It is important to juxtapose the long political careers of our TDs, ministers and taoisigh with our apparent great dislike of Irish politicians. Politicians have never exactly been popular, but their stock has been in sharp decline since the economic crisis. A short perusal of local or national talk radio will give a flavour of the almost visceral dislike of politicians that appears to be shared by a growing number of citizens.

The Government bears the brunt of most of the derision, but not all of it. The picture is not a simple one. Over the last decade there has been a sharp fall in citizens' trust in politicians, and we can see that from several waves of the European Social Survey from 2002 to 2012.

However, in the Irish National Election Study in 2011, respondents were asked their opinion of their local public representative, and this delivers a more nuanced picture, with significant numbers supportive of the local, hard-working representative.

The announcement that Enda Kenny may stay on for a few more terms may have caused some derision, but the evidence shows that taoisigh tend to have relatively long careers in Ireland, as do government ministers.

History has been kinder to Fianna Fail taoisigh, but Kenny remains in poll position to lead the next Government. Voters may complain about their politicians, but it takes an extraordinary set of circumstances such as those of 2011 to get them to do anything dramatic about replacing them.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the Department of Government at University College Cork

Irish Independent

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