Tuesday 20 March 2018

Kenny faces relegation if he can't find an exciting new team

Enda Kenny. Photo: Damien Eagers
Enda Kenny. Photo: Damien Eagers
James Downey

James Downey

LIKE so many millions from Shanghai to Sacramento, I settled down comfortably on Wednesday evening to watch the Great Spanish Comeback.

Alas, it never happened. The Reign of Spain ended, not with a bang but a whimper.

It was always going to happen. Nothing lasts for ever. One day, in one stadium or another, the team that had – in the words of Sergio Ramos – "defined an era", would go the way of all the other conquerors.

But how sad to see the way that Spain went out of the World Cup.

Had they played with their famous style and spirit, had they fought an enthralling fight where the outcome was uncertain until the last minute, they would have brought a fitting end to those many years of glorious achievement.

But in both of their matches in the World Cup, the style and spirit – and skill – were missing. The glory had departed.

If their admirers had any consolation, it resided in the knowledge that the comeback had only been postponed. Sooner or later, another Spanish team will match the achievements of the past.

A pity we cannot say the same for the present Irish government.

Whatever about style or skill, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition came into office with plenty of spirit.

They set about tackling the appalling mess they inherited, and the even more appalling prospects for our ravaged economy, with courage and fortitude.

One of them, Michael Noonan, even gave us a glimpse of style when he made us believe, for a little while, that the European leaders would honour their promise, made two years ago, to give us a deal on our bank debt.

This week, sadly, he was forced to admit that the deal was unlikely. For that, the Government cannot be blamed. But it must be blamed for the loss of grip, and the self-inflicted wounds, that have become so common and so ominous all through the first six months of this year.

If ever a government lacked style, this one lacked it in the handling of the composition of the banking inquiry. Enda Kenny could have shrugged, smiled and accepted that the Government would not have a majority on the inquiry. Instead, he adopted the iron-fist approach.

As for skill, the Government made a mistake by dangling the carrot of tax cuts before the electorate.

If indeed we could afford them, they should have been kept in reserve, as a pleasant surprise, for October. Now the Internal Monetary Fund (IMF) tells us that we should increase taxes, not cut them.

And who supposes that the Government will repair its fortunes with a popular – and exciting, if one can imagine such a thing – reshuffle of cabinet and junior ministers?

This is surely one of the most complex operations ever faced by any Irish government. In the first place, Eamon Gilmore has to be replaced, presumably by Joan Burton, as a member of the inner cabinet, the Economic Management Council.

Senator Denis O'Donovan of Fianna Fail calls this body "the politburo". Nice one, that.

To work properly, every government needs an inner cabinet. But the mere existence of this one points up a major democratic flaw. It is not a tool of dictatorship, like the politburo in the former Soviet Union, but it centralises power in a manner which the Irish Constitution never envisaged.

That said, Ms Burton is as good as we can get. In what capacity, though?

Speculation on the coming reshuffle has gone so far as to suggest that she might get one of the portfolios held at present by Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin.

But if any minister is irreplaceable, those two are. Could we afford a new regime beginning with a stand-off between the Taoiseach and Ms Burton?

There are wider questions. One is the personal and political relation-ship between Enda Kenny and the new Tanaiste. More governments have fallen because of incompatible personalities than on arguments over policy differences.

But the most important question of all is the nature and extent of the reshuffle. Petty changes are worthless, especially for a government like this one, entering the final stages of its tenure. But big changes are dangerous. The situation calls for big changes, and the Taoiseach has to get them right.

His freedom of action is limited. Under the Irish system, about which I have complained so often, the party leaders make the choices – good or bad.

Ms Burton if she wishes can sack elderly Labour ministers. Mr Kenny's decisions cannot be so simple. For him, getting it right has to mean putting aside all considerations of personal friendship, internal party conflicts – and geography.

When the new Spanish team emerges, it will be vastly different from the present one. The Taoiseach must make that true of his own new team. If he fails, he will forfeit his claim to skill and spirit and his reign will end as dismally as the Spanish football reign.

But much more quickly.

Irish Independent

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