'We have no pre-election pact with anybody'
It’s all about the team, says Enda Kenny as he urges voters to judge Fine Gael on their plan and policies – not perceived allegiances
ENDA KENNY has a deceptively simple formula to describe the job of a political leader. It is to find solutions to problems and make decisions.
The Fine Gael leader says he is not really concerned about his relatively low personal poll ratings. The important thing is that he is leading a strong team which, he says, is the best equipped to tackle the difficulties facing the country.
“Politicians are not meant to be technocrats. There are two fundamentals to a politician’s life. The first is to find solutions and the second is to make decisions. You can have a list of 1,000 options presented to you but you have the responsibility to make the decision.”
He says Fine Gael is tied neither to unions nor to business and the party’s only objective is to make the right decisions for the people and the country.
“Nobody is going to say that one person can turn around the fortunes of Ireland now. It is going to take a really strong, courageous, dedicated team with a strategy and a plan. And we believe we have the team to do it.”
Reform of the political system is one of the five key elements of the Fine Gael policy platform going into the election. He pledges a constitutional referendum to abolish the Seanad and reduce the size of the Dáil will be launched within 12 months of taking office.
Kenny is reluctant to blame the electoral system for the country’s problems, as a number of commentators have done, and is dubious about the merits of a list system.
“Many years ago Liam Cosgrave favoured a single-seat system of PR and Dev tried to abolish PR twice and the people said ‘No’. So the Irish people are very conscious of their right to elect whoever they want to elect,” says Kenny.
He points to some of the list systems in other countries and says they have a tendency to develop into “old boys clubs” with a self perpetuating elite being offered to the electorate.
“I do think there is an opportunity for a citizens’ forum to have a look at these things over a period but I am not one who favours the appointment of people who have not been elected to positions of political responsibility.”
Kenny says he is convinced the Dáil and the political system can be made to work far more effectively and that those elected to the national parliament can be given a more challenging and rewarding political experience.
The Fine Gael leader concedes that the current disparity between the local politician and the national politician has become a problem. “You are elected to the Dáil but you have to deal with potholes and all the stuff that applies locally” he remarks, citing Tip O’Neill’s maxim that all politics is local.
“One of the problems about the Dáil is that it has never been allowed to work in the way that I think it could. If you have a smaller number of really powerful committees and you give your national legislators the opportunity to do real work on legislation and you give them a challenge and give them responsibility and targets you will transform the way the Dáil operates.”
Kenny says many TDs now spend their time doing constituency work because they have no other role and he aims to change that by reforming the way the Dáil works so that TDs can have a direct involvement in legislation and engage in real participation in debate and question time.
“You have to challenge TDs to do work in a far more national sense. A lot of them don’t have anything to do up here in terms of national legislation. And that forces them to be on the telephone about grit on the road and things like that.”
Another key policy is a strategy for economic growth that is designed to create up to 100,000 jobs over the next four years. The NewEra programme will involve the disposal of State assets and the investment of an additional €7 billion into infrastructure. A new banking system will be designed to get credit flowing and end the need for bailouts while sectoral reform will help to cut costs.
“It’s about people getting back to work. Chopra said to us: ‘We don’t want to interfere in national politics at all but if you come with a stronger programme for growth and investing in jobs and cutting out waste we would be prepared to discuss those things with you’.
“Our party is the only party that has accepted the overall targets.”
On the agenda too is tackling the deficit in the public finances and reducing it top 3 per cent of gross national product by 2014.
Kenny says Fine Gael is saying truthfully to people that there are no soft options but the party will deal with the economy in an open and decisive manner.
“That is why we said we would accept 3 per cent and that is why we said we would accept €6 billion for next year.”
Reforming the public sector through smaller and more accountable government and reforming the health service with a change in the way hospitals are funded and the introduction of a universal system of health insurance are the other key objectives.
Some of the commitments, including the targets for the public finances and the emphasis on spending cuts rather than tax increases, are difficult to reconcile with the priorities of the Labour Party but Kenny emphasises his party is seeking support for its own platform.
“We are giving a clear choice this time to the voters and we have no pre-election pact with anybody. So we are running enough candidates to win an overall majority and these are the five pillars we are going to sell our message on to the public and let them judge that programme.
“And I do think that people, looking beyond the anger, concern and anxiety, are going to examine what it is that parties have in their programmes and their strategies.
“Our policy is for no increase in income tax, no widening of the bands. Other parties have different views about higher taxes or more taxes. We recognise that there is no magic wand but we are standing on our own and we have enough candidates to win an overall majority.
“These are our five main platforms and we will spell that out as best we can to the people and let them judge it and see what happens afterwards.”
As to what kind of deal Fine Gael might make with Labour Kenny says he is not prepared to make any presumptions about what the Irish people will decide. “We will go through to the close of polls and see what the decision is.
“Obviously you look at the figures afterwards and see in what circumstances a government can be formed. Our programme is very clear and that is what we are going to see. Other parties will sell theirs and the people will judge and the people are always the masters. Politicians are but the servants of the people and that is the great thing about this democracy.”
Dealing with the re-emergence of abortion as a political issue, following the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, Kenny believes the best way to deal with it is through an all-party Oireachtas committee to be established after the election.
He rules out the commitment to a referendum being sought by the anti-abortion campaign in advance of the election and says that will certainly not be forthcoming from Fine Gael.
“This is very divisive and there are deeply and sincerely held views on all sides of this argument. This obviously is going to be a matter for the next Oireachtas to deal with,” says Kenny, who adds that the first thing that will have to be done is to determine the scale and the nature of the problem.
“We had the X case back in the 1990s and the European Court of Human Rights has given its decision now. This judgment required proper analysis and some in-depth discussion. What I would propose is that the next Oireachtas should establish a process to look at the core issues here. I am not going to shirk the issue but I am not going to predetermine what the outcome will be.”
He says that in the case of the Oireachtas Committee on Children’s Rights it was established with a predetermined outcome in mind and that was to hold a referendum on the issue.
“In this case my view is that we should set up an appropriate all-party committee with terms of reference that would allow it to have access to the best legal advice, to the best medical advice and other expertise that is required about what should be done here. . .
“What should be done might range across a spectrum from legislation to a list of State recommendations or regulations that the medical profession could adhere to and operate within,” he says.
“My position is I do not favour legalising abortion on demand. We have a situation where you have difficult, hard cases, and some people have gone through very difficult circumstances but there is an ECHR judgement, there is a Supreme Court decision and there is a constitutional position.
“If the next Oireachtas is to respond it has got to determine what the facts are, the scale of the problem and the nature of it and see if we can arrive at a consensus on how to deal with it.
“It is not a case of kicking it off into the distance. The next Oireachtas will deal with it based on the evidence and the facts.”