Challenges should temper celebrations at FG Ardfheis


INSIDE POLITICS:Fine Gael has helped restore national stability and confidence, but signs of Government disunity are worrying

THE HUGE challenges facing the country and the Government should not prevent delegates attending the Fine Gael Ardfheis in Dublin this weekend from celebrating a remarkable political achievement.

A decade ago the party was on its knees after its worst general election performance. Political opponents and pundits vied with each other to write Fine Gael’s obituary and its new leader, Enda Kenny, was widely dismissed as a lightweight incapable of reversing the party’s fortunes. Ten years on and not only is Fine Gael back in government after 14 years in the wilderness, it has routed its old enemy Fianna Fáil and replaced it as the dominant political force in the country.

Kenny has had a hugely successful first year in office and instead of being the liability that even some key Fine Gael people feared he has turned out to be the star of the Government and the cement that has bound the Coalition.

Nonetheless, the trials of being in Government at a time of economic crisis should temper the celebration of Fine Gael’s first year in office. Protesters galore are being encouraged to turn up outside the Convention Centre in Dublin and they could make things hot for the new party of power.

Once they get over the fact that this is the first time in 16 years they are holding an ardfheis while in power, the delegates, from Ministers down, would do well to take a cold look at how the party has handled its responsibilities over the past year.

On the positive side they have managed to restore stability and a degree of confidence to the political system, but the price has been that some crucial decisions required to restore the State’s public finances to health have been postponed. That cannot continue indefinitely.

A more immediate problem is the debacle over the €100 household charge. It was never going to be easy to persuade people to pay a modest property tax, particularly as all of the parties in the Dáil have used the issue as a political football for the past two decades.

Even so, the Department of the Environment has been astonishingly complacent in how it has gone about collecting the charge. At this stage it looks as if the compliance rate will be well under 50 per cent when the deadline ends this evening. That would represent a severe blow to the Coalition’s authority.

It now stands to alienate more than half the population if it pursues the charge, while alienating the compliant minority if it changes tack. In terms of the national finances the charge is relatively minor and a majority will probably pay in the end, but it will take time and will inevitably become a running sore.

A more serious issue for the Government is that some signs of disunity are beginning to emerge and both Coalition parties need to get a grip before things get out of hand. Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton is clearly at odds with most of her Cabinet colleagues, and her implicit criticism of Kenny for appearing in a photograph with Denis O’Brien, while acknowledging that Kenny had no say in the matter, could be a sign of things to come.

It is no secret that Burton’s relationship with her Labour Cabinet colleagues is poor and it remains to be seen how long Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore can allow the issue to fester before it become a threat to his leadership.

On the Fine Gael side Burton’s views were echoed by Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton. In opposition she was a fierce critic of Kenny and it was a real surprise when he appointed her to such a significant post. Her coded criticism of the Taoiseach in the past week has been noted by her party colleagues and it is something that Kenny will find hard to ignore.

While most of the internal opponents who revolted against Kenny’s leadership less than a year before the general election have settled down to loyally support him in Government, they haven’t all gone away.

For the moment, though, the Taoiseach is in an unassailable position. He has put an incredible level of energy into doing his job and has represented the country well on the international stage. His performance has played a significant part in improving the country’s international reputation.

The deal on the promissory note payment on the eve of the ardfheis was an ideal boost to counteract the negative publicity about the household charge, but it is not nearly as significant as either the Government or its opponents have been making out. One of the mistakes both Coalition parties made in opposition was to indulge the notion there was some way to make the country’s debt disappear by burning bondholders or telling the European Central Bank where to get off.

In the event the Coalition got lucky with significantly better terms on the country’s debt emerging as a byproduct of the Greek crisis. Some easing of the terms of the bank debt would certainly be helpful, but it is not going to be written down or written off.

Anyway, the central challenge facing the Government is to knuckle down and get the public finances under control. That is not going to be easy, but success or failure on that front will determine whether Fine Gael can retain its new-found status as the State’s biggest party. As it struggles with a variety of difficulties in the years ahead, Ministers should take some consolation from the views expressed in a text from Mary Harney to John Gormley during a particularly difficult day in the life of the last government.

“The worst day in Government is better than the best day in Opposition,” went the message and most of the Cabinet, who have spent almost all their political lives in opposition, know that only too well.

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