Dumping Quinn now would be a foolish move


DRAPIER: Enda Kenny's first week as leader of Fine Gael has vindicated those in his party who opted for a quick resolution of the leadership issue rather than leave it hanging about over a long and demoralised summer. Kenny has hit the ground running and has generated the first bit of positive coverage his party has had in a long time.

It won't be easy to sustain the pace but at least the mood is bright and cheerful, the new front bench has a fresh look to it and there is no doubting the personal goodwill which exists towards Kenny.

But, as Drapier and others never tire of pointing out, Fine Gael's problems are deeper and more fundamental than whose face appears on the poster and Drapier will return at a later date to give what advice he can to Enda Kenny. For the moment, however, it has to be said that the new leader - or young Lochinvar as Séamus Mallon used call him, has got off to a flying start, though whether or not a good start is half the work remains to be seen.

This week the angst cloud hung over Labour. The Fine Gael collapse disguised the extent to which Labour had a bad election - not necessarily a bad campaign, but certainly a bad result. Ruairí Quinn has been strangely subdued since the election and it is no secret that he is seriously contemplating his future.

His mood can hardly have been helped by the rushing into print of James Wrynne and the less-than-subtle remarks of Róisín Shortall. No more than Fine Gael, Labour's problems go well beyond that of the leader. As far as Drapier can judge, Quinn has been a good leader who has worked very hard and given great thought to Labour's role in a rapidly changing Ireland.

He can be accused of being too clever by half in his early approach to the last election - in giving the impression that Labour had an each-way bet and depending on how the numbers fell it was only a question of deciding whether to go into government with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. And it can be said that if Fine Gael was his preferred partner in government then logic would have suggested that a voting pact made mutual sense.

That may well be so, but Fine Gael by this stage was carrying a government health warning which became more serious with each passing day and, as dog eats dog, it was legitimate to target Fine Gael seats in the interest of growing the party. Politics, after all, is a competitive business and every party leader has a major responsibility to maximise the interests of his own party.

In any event, those who are now most vociferous in criticism of Quinn were themselves part of the party's strategy and Drapier does not remember any dissent or open disagreement from these quarters at that time. And Drapier wonders, too, why the criticisms were not kept private.

Drapier, of course, knows why - as indeed does every party leader since the time of Jack Lynch. John Bruton and Michael Noonan could tell Ruairí all about it. When the sniping starts it means that something is up, and a leader basically has two choices. He can sniff the wind and decide that he has no stomach for months of guerrilla warfare, of trying to bind together people who don't want to be bound and no time for all the nastiness that goes with a restless party. Or he can decide to take on his critics, force them into the open, make them put up or shut up and have the matter decided, one way or other.

As far as Drapier can see, there is no immediate threat to Ruairí Quinn's position. Labour's real problems go much deeper. No new TDs were elected this time - Joe Costello and Joan Burton were of the class of '92. The party has ceded much of its traditional territory to Sinn Féin and lags behind Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin in attracting members in all of the third-level institutions. It went into the election looking tired and emerged looking dazed and bedraggled.

Drapier sees a rough couple of months ahead for Ruairí Quinn. But those who think a quick fix by means of a leadership change is the answer are sadly way off the mark. Ruairí Quinn is a good leader, as good as Labour are going to get and Labour's problems, like those of Fine Gael as Drapier has said, are deeper and more complex.

The only advice Drapier can give is to say to everybody in Labour to hold back. All of you are tired, in many cases knackered. We've had almost a year of electioneering and none of you is thinking straight.

Everybody should head off for a few weeks rest and recreation, then get Willie Penrose to organise a few days down in Mullingar or Athlone where the party can talk to itself in a calm way and start putting in place the structures and thinking it needs. Drapier hopes it is not too late and it is not - but some sections of the media already scent blood and won't easily let up. This is one time when Ruairí should not be rushed.

Drapier is coming to a view that in spite of its enhanced numbers, this new Government is going to be more vulnerable than its predecessor. The last government was vulnerable for the first part of its life and just about made it to the summer recess in 1999 and 2000. There were many inside and outside of the Dáil at these times who prophesied its early demise. It didn't happen, but there was no inevitability about its survival.

Things changed two years ago. By then the Independents were securely locked in and the PDs had nowhere to go. On top of that, the booming economy presented the opposition with few real opportunities.

The situation today is different, potentially very different. For a start there is the old saying that the moment of greatest victory is also the time of greatest danger. That may or may not be true, but the economy is going to be a minefield.

What Fine Gael and some of the economists said before the election is happening with a vengeance. The chickens have come home to roost and Charlie McCreevy, ingenious as he is, will be forced to dish out some very unpalatable medicine to a public that has forgotten what harsh decisions are, and certainly has little stomach for them.

Add to that the tricky second Nice referendum; benchmarking; all the red meat which Flood has yet to tackle; the publication of Moriarty; a raft of major compensation claims against the State - and that's only for starters. Waiting lists won't go away either and the National Development Plan is seriously behind schedule. And so on.

Add to all this the touch of arrogance, the sense of a divine right to office which is already creeping in, and we can see a government likely to face a few nasty surprises.

Continue to expect the unexpected.

Dick Walsh is on leave