Kenny's optimism helps dispel the pall of gloom


INSIDE POLITICS:Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his Ministers can relax over Christmas having got a second difficult budget through the Dáil without suffering any serious political damage, despite a lot of huffing and puffing from a handful of worried TDs and Senators.

While the Labour Party lost a TD and a Senator on the Social Welfare Bill, the defections were not as serious as expected and were counterbalanced by the application to return by former minister of state Willie Penrose, who left the parliamentary party over last year’s budget.

Labour faces a problem, however, in having a chairman, Colm Keaveney, who is now outside the parliamentary party. He will inevitably become a focal point for dissent among the membership but that is nothing new for Labour.

In the coming months the focus for dissent will shift to the Fine Gael parliamentary party. Its cohesion will be tested on the abortion issue but while it may also lose a TD or two overboard the signs are that discipline will also prevail in the bigger Coalition party.

Ultimately the fate of both parties in government will depend on the economy. While a bit of luck will be needed to meet the ambitious growth target set out in the budget for 2013 there are some tentative signs that the worst of the economic crisis may finally be passing.

If the euro continues to stabilise in the months ahead and a deal is done on Ireland’s bank debt the resulting boost to confidence could see the country attaining the 1.5 per cent growth target envisaged by the Government.

Of course the corollary is also true. Negative international developments could erode confidence, in turn undermining the budget targets, with serious knock-on effects.

For the moment, however, there are reasons to be mildly optimistic. Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton has pointed out that private sector employment grew by 12,000 in the third quarter of this year after a loss of 250,000 jobs in the sector since the start of the crisis.

Taoiseach widely admired abroad

Enda Kenny has been repeating ad nauseam, at home and abroad, the mantra about making Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business. While his domestic audience may be tired of hearing it, the message is having some impact.

A striking thing about the Taoiseach’s performance is that it is so widely admired outside Ireland. Both in the European Union and the United States Kenny is regarded at the highest levels as a serious politician who has performed extremely well in a very difficult job.

By contrast, at home he has been subject to a torrent of abuse from a coterie of commentators who themselves have made the wrong call at almost every turn of the economic crisis.

Kenny has sometimes displayed a lack of verbal agility in media interviews but the real test of leadership is performance and on that front he has done well. For a start he has run a unified Cabinet, containing a number of big egos, and has ensured the key economic targets have been met.

Probably his important asset as Taoiseach is an unrelenting energy and optimism. Those qualities have played a significant part in helping to dispel the pall of gloom that hung over the country when he took office. While serious problems will remain there is a growing realisation that the country can recover.

When the Coalition took office few believed Kenny’s claim that the country would be able to exit the bailout and return to the financial markets in 2014. That is now a realistic prospect even if it is by no means as certain as the Taoiseach and his Ministers claim.

The handling of the abortion issue will be the big test for him in the months ahead. This is an emotive issue governments have dodged for the past 20 years but, through a conjunction of circumstances, it has fallen for Kenny to deal with.

So far he has shown a clear grasp of the issue. He has responded calmly to the crass claim of the Catholic bishops that the proposed legislation and regulation will amount to “a culture of death”. He has also shown political acumen by firmly rejecting politically naive calls from some of his TDs for a free vote on the matter.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore had a bumpy start to his period in Government and took some time to live down the “chapel gate rhetoric” of the election campaign. By choosing the Department of Foreign Affairs he also put himself at a disadvantage in his role as party leader.

However, he too has kept his nerve through two difficult budgets and enforced party discipline. Like Kenny he appreciates that the prize of turning the economy around is the critical one that will determine his party’s prospects at the next election.

Labour has dropped in the polls since the election but an outbreak of panic is the last thing it needs. The next election is not due for another three years and if the economic targets are met and the country is restored to economic sovereignty by 2016 that would give the party a platform on which to go to the electorate.

On the Opposition side of the House Fianna Fáil is beginning to show signs of recovery. It is still going to be a long haul back for the party but Micheál Martin has performed a crucial role in ensuring it did not implode after the trauma of the election meltdown. He also ensured the party took a nuanced approach to Opposition and did not fall into the trap of trying to match the consistently aggressive performance of Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin has maintained a highly vocal stance in Opposition and the polls indicate it is having some impact. Whether it can translate that poll support into votes is a question to which 2014 European and local elections will provide some answer.

As for the array of small parties and Independents, it appears they will be around for some time but the task of solving the country’s problems will remain with the big parties.

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