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Saturday 10 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Enda and Joan go it alone for now, but they'll reconcile later

Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured with Tanaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton
Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured with Tanaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton

Divided we stand, united we fall. This is the unorthodox strategy that Fine Gael and Labour are both pursuing as they start to focus on winning a second term.

Essentially, the Coalition partners have decided to pick a few rows in public - because they think that will increase their chances of eventually getting back into bed together.

The first spat is already brewing. With the Government's final budget just four months away, Labour are demanding that Finance Minister Michael Noonan spends €60m on increasing the social welfare Christmas bonus by 25pc.

Fine Gael would prefer to use that money to restore the telephone allowance for pensioners that was axed in 2013.

Like all Budget arguments, this one will eventually result in some sort of compromise. The point is that Enda Kenny and Joan Burton are intent on appealing to their own target voters.

conservative

Fine Gael see older and more conservative people as natural supporters, while Labour want to recapture their image as champions of the poor and oppressed.

When the Taoiseach opened a bottle bank in Mayo last week, some opposition TDs wondered if he had nothing better to do with his time.

In fact, it was the clearest sign yet that Enda is putting everyone in Leinster House on election watch.

As well as shoring up votes in his own constituency, Kenny has ordered that all Fine Gael candidates must be selected soon so that he can fire the starting gun whenever suits him.

Joan Burton is also looking after number one. She will soon be sending out letters to the 100,000 mostly young people who registered to vote in the same-sex marriage referendum, arguing that Labour should be their natural political home.

In recent days the Tanaiste has also taken credit for setting up a full-scale inquiry into IBRC, promising an abortion referendum if the Government is re-elected and condemning the disgraceful treatment of Clerys' workers.

Fine Gael and Labour both claim that despite the odd hissy fit, theirs has been a happy marriage. They would be delighted to renew their wedding vows as long as the voters give them enough seats.

So why are the parties preparing separate General Election campaigns instead of running together as a proven dream team?

The simple answer is that Enda Kenny and Joan Burton remember their history.

As ministers they both had a ringside seat for the 1997 election, when the Rainbow Coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left offered itself as a joint package.

This strategy backfired badly, blurring the parties' individual strengths - and all three ended up in opposition as the Bertie Ahern era began.

Bill Clinton once justified a change in policy by declaring, "My daddy never had to whip me twice for the same thing." Kenny and Burton might not use such graphic language, but they do intend to learn from their predecessors' mistakes.

From now on this Government will be performing a tightrope act, hanging together for the last few months while making clear that it is every party for itself.

unpopular

As a result, we can expect the coalition partners to offer completely different things in their election manifestos. Fine Gael will promise income tax cuts above all else, with a particular emphasis on slashing the universally unpopular Universal Social Charge.

Labour will put the emphasis on social issues, pledging to spend more in schools and hospitals as well as leading a crusade to repeal the Eighth Amendment ban on abortion.

This is set to be the most unpredictable general election in Irish history. With wild cards such as Lucinda Creighton's Renua Ireland and a new left-wing party on the horizon, only one thing is sure - it makes perfect sense for the Coalition leaders to keep all their options open.

If Enda and Joan seem headed for the divorce courts later this year, don't be fooled. It's all part of their grand design to persuade the electorate that they deserve a second honeymoon.

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