Kenny and Burton give unconvincing picture of unity amid election speculation

Taoiseach and Tánaiste launch 1916 programme as talk of November date heats up

Harmony:  Taoiseach  Enda Kenny  with Tanaiste Joan Burton and Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton yesterday. Photograph

Harmony: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Tanaiste Joan Burton and Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton yesterday. Photograph


The political tableau suggested ease and harmony. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Joan Burton sat side by side on the stage in the sumptuous surrounding of the great hall in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

They were launching the local government part of the 2016 centenary programme. Two Ministers, Alan Kelly and Heather Humphreys sat alongside completing the picture of a happy family. With just about every mayor in the country in attendance, the room was weighed down with more chains than the Ghost of old Marley carried around in A Christmas Carol.

Worthy though the programme is, for those who are following the quickening car crash that is this Coalition government, it was not what was said but what was unsaid that was key.

While the Taoiseach and Tánaiste tried to give a picture of unity and coherence, it was as convincing as the rictus smiles of Alicia and Peter Florrick, the political couple in the TV series The Good Wife.

If you were run that awkward silence through Google Translate it would read something like this: There has has been a rupture and no amount of plastering and blandishments can undo the impact of The Irish Times front page story on Thursday which said Enda Kenny was leaning strongly towards a November election.

There were smiles and Enda could not contain his natural tactility with the odd hand on the shoulder. But both of them shifted in their chairs and the smalltalk was monosyllabic. The normally loquacious Burton, in particular, looked uncharacteristically subdued, emollient compared to the ebullient Kenny.

The most telling thing were the doorsteps. Kenny dodged the media posse and slipped in a side entrance, thus avoiding all the uncomfortable questions about a November election. Humphreys was ambushed but did not break stride as she uttered a total of five words to flurry of questions: “I can’t tell you that”.

It was left to Burton and to Kelly to run the gauntlet. Both she and the Taoiseach were late as a relatively straightforward Cabinet meeting on the Budget turned into a marathon.

Labour back bench TDs were clearly spooked and were privately saying that Fine Gael was pulling a fast one and undermining any coherence there had been. One of them, Kerry TD Arthur Spring, had already been out to the media saying he wouldn’t support a pact with Fine Gael if a November election was called.

Others were not quite saying that but it reflected the mood. Sure enough when the Tánaiste arrived, the Burtonometer was running on low. Dressed in a jaunty pink jacket, she looked tired and drawn and seemed less confident about 2016 than before. She referred to priorities to be finished like the banking inquiries and a house-building programme. It tailed off a little bit. It wasn’t convincing.

But then she came out with a very determined line that indicated that Labour would continue to fight for a spring date irrespective of the gathering storms.

“We intend to stay the course. I have never been a quitter. I want to stay the course.”It was a great line but the historical precedent was a little unfortunate. Back in 1953, Richard Nixon, a rising star in US Republican politics had uttered the same line when he became embroiled in a scandal over financing. “Let me say this: I don’t believe that I ought to quit because I am not a quitter.”

As she stepped away she was asked was she still of the view it would take place in 2016? “I would be very confident,” she said.

Others in Labour are less so and believe the Taoiseach is close to pulling the trigger, even though he has yet to be fully convinced. In any instance it has all become almost unmanageable. Fine Gael strategists, keen to get ordinary people into a more election mode of thinking, lit a match. That has now turned into a bushfire.

“I said six weeks ago that the only way a November election could take place would be if endless speculation made it into a self-fulfilling prophecy,” rued a Labour strategist. “That now looks more and more like that case.”

Still, Kelly cut a figure of nonchalance. “I feel the Taoiseach has always been honourable,” he said to reporters. “All along the Taoiseach has said he would choose a date in 2016, he has kept (to his word),” he said casually.

Just as he uttered the words his phone went off in his pocket. Its ringtone was the tune of ‘Honesty’ by Billy Joel. Perhaps Labour had taken the phone out and given it a blast as the Cabinet gathered earlier that morning.