Pat Leahy: Kenny’s return from US will spur leadership race

Forget political ideals, the question of money will be the inconvenient truth in the contest

Donald Trump and Enda Kenny: “Kenny went to Washington and did what anyone who has ever been taoiseach would have done – and, predictably enough, he is getting monstered for it.” Photograph: Olivier Douliery/EPA

Donald Trump and Enda Kenny: “Kenny went to Washington and did what anyone who has ever been taoiseach would have done – and, predictably enough, he is getting monstered for it.” Photograph: Olivier Douliery/EPA

 

In the coming days, when Enda Kenny returns from Washington, the Fine Gael leadership contest will change gear, leaving behind its current subterranean phase and moving into a period of active campaigning.

Kenny went to Washington and did what anyone who has ever been taoiseach would have done – and, predictably enough, he is getting monstered for it.

Actually, Kenny’s speeches struck a skilful balance between friendly overtures to the Trump administration and stating clearly Ireland’s positions on trade, the EU, immigration and international co-operation. He made an explicit and public request on the Irish undocumented in the US; his “invitation” to Trump to visit Ireland was polite and pro-forma. The prospects of Enda teeing off in Doonbeg with the Donald are remote.

All this notwithstanding, the visit will no doubt be viewed through the prism created by pictures of him smiling and shaking hands with President Trump.

Frankly, I am not sure that scowling rather than smiling would have been advisable or productive. The Taoiseach does not have the luxury of the sort of gestures that opposition politicians can engage in. That’s one of the differences between being in government and not; in power, you’re playing with live ammunition. Your actions have consequences.

Warning shot

Some people in Fine Gael are suggesting that the delay in triggering article 50 by the British will delay Kenny’s departure as leader of his party. If there is a delay, it will not be a lengthy one. Kenny’s time as leader is at an end; there is no putting that genie back in the bottle, not even for a few months. If Kenny does not go of his own volition, he will be pushed. That was the only meaning of the events at the Fine Gael parliamentary party in recent weeks, and that meaning has not changed, nor will it.

There were a couple of noteworthy developments in the contest during the week, which may suggest the shape of the debates to come between the Fine Gael candidates. This is not solely a Fine Gael matter; the winner will be – subject to a renewal of the vows with Fianna Fáil and the Independents – the next taoiseach.

Leo Varadkar fired another warning shot at his rival Simon Coveney, suggesting that candidates for the leadership should publish their spending on the campaign. Previously, his supporters have been pushing for spending limits for the campaign, so that money doesn’t confer an advantage. Here’s an easy translation of what he actually means: Simon is rich, born with a silver spoon, what would he know about the struggles of the coping classes?

I’m not sure about the wisdom of this. First, I’m not sure how rich Coveney is, though his father was a successful businessman and his family were certainly wealthy. But Varadkar is the privately educated doctor son of a doctor from leafy Castleknock – not exactly conspicuous as a wasteland of urban deprivation. I am not altogether convinced he would be terribly convincing doing the béal bocht routine.

Even if he was, it might not be that effective. The first rule of elections is that the electorate decides them, and Fine Gael members might not hold the bit of posh against Coveney at all. There’s a streak in the Blueshirts that likes a bit of blue blood. Varadkar’s repeated intervention on the point does suggest, though, that he may be a little taken aback by the early strength of Coveney in the race, and the slight edge that the recent Irish Times poll attributed to him.

Perhaps more interesting was the intervention by the Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe last weekend, when he told the Sunday Independent that there should be income tax reductions as part of the response to Brexit.

Consequences

Donohoe has been clear privately and then publicly that he will not be a candidate to replace Kenny, but he is an influential voice in the party and holds a powerful portfolio in Government.

His comments about tax cuts were interpreted as signalling sympathy with the views of Varadkar, who has spoken recently about the same subject. The view is certainly in tune with the views of many Fine Gael members who are, after all, mostly right of centre on the political spectrum.

In fact, the call for tax cuts – though amplified by the Sunday Indo – was only one of five priorities for the future that Donohoe outlined. Two of the others involved investment in public services and in infrastructure.

Like Varadkar, Donohoe is a thinker about politics, and he has written and spoken several times recently about the need for a “strong centre” in politics.

He could do the forthcoming debate further service by outlining the daily reality of his job – the unavoidable fact that decisions in government and politics have consequences.

Decisions to tax less mean that decisions to spend more have to be postponed. Decisions to spend on pay increases for public servants mean less money is available for other investments – such as hiring more nurses, and teachers and gardaí. This is not a value judgment; it is an exercise in mathematics.

The decision – first in an unprecedented Labour Court recommendation then accepted by the Government – to pay gardaí an average of €4,000 a year extra had the initial consequence of avoiding a Garda strike. It also had the consequence of triggering pay claims across the public sector. Meeting them has the consequence of reducing the resources available for other projects and causes.

This is the reality of government. But for much of our political debate, which prefers the undergraduate pleasures of uncosted pledges and unquantified demands, it is an inconvenient truth. Given that the forthcoming Fine Gael leadership election will be conducted exclusively among politicians of Government, perhaps we can expect that reality to be acknowledged?

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