A year in politics: the Enda the bailout
May elections in 2014 will present a particular challenge for the Coalition, which will also face the ultimate test of its decision to forgo an emergency credit line post-bailout
Daunting tasks: Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore (left) and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
For all its success in the achievement of a smooth bailout exit, the Government faces a daunting task in 2014 as it seeks to establish durable access to global capital markets.
With the fragile economic recovery still a work in progress, Fine Gael and Labour must also run the gauntlet of risky local and European elections in May. A banking stress test by the European Central Bank later in the year may present yet more searching questions for embattled Irish lenders. After momentous developments in 2013, these scheduled events stand as major hurdles to be overcome in the year ahead.
Still, the likelihood of a Cabinet reshuffle in 2014 and the appointment of Ireland’s next EU commissioner will be an opportunity to put a new complexion on the Government. Although only minimal change is in prospect, the potential for drama is clear. From his personal perspective, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has emphatically ruled out taking any senior EU post and pledged to lead his party into the next general election.
The Coalition is ending 2013 on something of a high. More than halfway into their five-year mandate, Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore can claim a success in bringing the bailout to a close. The crisis is not yet at an end, but steady job creation and modest economic growth have raised hope that the next budget will be the last to include tax hikes and spending cutbacks.
Yet there were still notable setbacks in 2013 for the Coalition. One was the overwhelming defeat of the Seanad referendum, leading to criticism of the Government’s limp campaign and Kenny’s failure to participate in a TV debate. Another was a spate of Fine Gael defections over contentious abortion legislation.
In addition, Labour’s torrid byelection performance in Meath East put internal strain on Gilmore. A Labour leaflet attacking Kenny did not go down well. It finished as a bad day overall for the Coalition, even though Helen McEntee of Fine Gael won the seat held by her late father.
Despite all the fiscal pain it continues to impose, the Government’s fundamental calculation remains that the people will ultimately give it credit for staying the course. Nevertheless, Kenny took care in his televised national address earlier this month to note that many people have yet to see the improving economic situation in their daily lives.
The May elections present a particular test. No government contemplates a midterm contest with glee, but ever-deepening fiscal retrenchment means Fine Gael and Labour are each vulnerable to attack.
True, nothing has emerged so far in the lifetime of the Coalition to jeopardise its essential stability. Yet there is concern within the ranks that Labour candidates especially will bear the brunt of public disaffection. Not that Fine Gael is immune to electoral flak. The larger party must also minimise damage. Gains seem unlikely.