Enda-Kenny

Albert Reynolds once said that it was ‘the little things that trip you up’ in Government. His mid-1990s coalition collapsed over a row about a missing folder and a contested judicial appointment which few of us can even remember the details of. But it was not the row itself that brought down the Government. It was the way ‘the little thing’ illustrates a much larger problem, which in this case was Albert’s stubbornness, reckless and inability to treat his Labour party as political equals.

Could it be the same now with the McNulty affair for this Government and for Fine Gael? For almost two weeks, the controversy has trundled on. In fact, it seems to be getting worse and more farcical. Having withdrawn from the Seanad race, but with his name still on the ballot paper, John McNulty may still actually take his seat, if elected. And he may get elected, as Government TDs are disinclined to let a Sinn Fein or Fianna Fail candidate get elected instead.

Meanwhile, the hapless arts Minister Heather Humphreys, who is clearly out of her depth, has refused to say who told her to put McNulty’s name forward for the board of the Irish Museum of Modern ART, in a blatant CV-enhancing exercise. She said it was a FG party matter! This: about a State board of a national cultural institution. Does Heather Humphreys not realise that her role is that of a Minister of the Government, not a Fine Gael who happens to inhabit the positon and treats its business as FG business? But clearly after a week of farcical denials, half-hearted apologies and new revelations of cronyism, the Fine Gael PR machine, if it even exists, is still not in control of the message, never mind events.

The controversy has now become a farce, not least because, as scandals go, it is hardly the most momentous or costly to begin with. But, in fact, it goes right to the heart of why we should be worried about Fine Gael, as they come into the latter stages of their period in Government. The dispute and its handling by FG, which is the dominant Coalition partner, shows all the flaws of this Government, which are getting worse. We see a sense of arrogance, and of not inhabiting the role, and a sense of drift and just reacting to events.

This is not just about Enda Kenny’s control-freakery and isolation at the top. It is also about the party being a too complacent machine which just reacts to events, has no imagination and has a membership that is just waiting for the goodies and perks to fall into its lap. We see a sense of ennui, complacency and personal entitlement, despite the great promise when they were all elected 3 years ago. This is very worrying as we face into our first non-Troika budget since 2007.

This cack-handedness means that the Government becomes bogged down in rancour and dispute to the detriment of other very important matters of Government. The row about Alan Shatter’s credibility went on and on, before he finally fell on his sword and took the Garda Commissioner with him. Meanwhile, confusion and allegations of cronyism grew about Irish Water, a momentous new tax which could cripple Irish families. And yet we still don’t have any full clarity about the charges, or about who is really in charge or about why we need a new super water quango like the unwieldy HSE.  There is now a frightening sense that we could be landed with huge charges for our water and that this Government is unable or unwilling to do anything about it. There is a uneasy sense that they are just not in control.

It is the same with the housing market. Despite all that has happened, we are back to same old ‘bubble and bust’ pattern, with an overheated property market and rising prices stopping young couples from buying a home. And the Government did nothing to curb this, despite the obvious warning signs. Worse still, many of the property developers who we bailed out through NAMA, are back in the game again.

And elsewhere, there are problems. Leo Varadkar’s arrival in health is welcome, but he has inherited a department that is way over budget, and he doesn’t look like he has the will to reduce it. As for reform of the costly and over-protected legal sector, as was specifically requested by the Troika, what hope is there of this, now that the reforming Shatter is gone?

It almost makes us hearken back to when the Troika was here. At least there was a sense that someone firm was in control, cracking whips, checking in that things were being done and implemented. But there appears to be little follow-through now. On the contrary, the Troika are only gone a year, and yet already there is slippage, with loose talk of tax cuts and reversals in public sector pay cuts. Joan Burton even spoke of possibly restoring the Christmas bonus for Social Welfare recipients. The Government’s discipline has clearly slackened, made worse by the fact that we are now into an electoral cycle and most Government TDs are already thinking about currying favour with the voters, and saving their own bacon.

This is a shame as the economy is recovering and the Government has done some very good work, but there is a sense in which this recovery is almost happening without them.  How disciplined can a Government be, in reading the economy, that it would swing from a proposed fiscal correction of a 2 billion cut, to a neutral budget, to the current talk of a spending kitty of 600m ? Some Ministers are looking to spend even more than that.  It’s almost as if the Government cannot anticipate the pace of the economic recovery, which clearly it can’t, as if it is just a passenger to events and to the broader society.

A Government’s budget is the high pressure moment of the year when everything comes into focus. But more crucially this is the first one which we are being allowed to do ourselves since 2007. The accusation from the opposition has been that for the past three years Enda Kenny’s government has only been a puppet show front for the real power running Ireland, which was the Troika (and behind them the Germans) and that God help us when they actually left the country back to Enda and his motley crew. It is harsh predication, especially coming from those who brought the Troika in here. But in fairness can we honestly say that this Government would have taken the tough road they did, without Fianna Fail first putting through two big corrective budgets?

The reality is that the Troika forced the pace and without them it has slackened: reforms have gone undone, complacency and arrogance have set in, and brazen strokes like the McNulty one consume the political landscape for almost a fortnight. Once invincible, this accident-prone Government now looks fragile and vulnerable. Albert Reynolds Government collapsed over a judicial appointment, but Enda would do well to also look at his own party’s history and 1982 when an out-of-touch FG-led coalition collapsed over a budget that included a tax on children’s shoes. The whole pack of cards can quickly become undone, and Fine Gael would be right back in opposition again, where they have spent so long.

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