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Sunday 4 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Enda should resist temptation to pull the election trigger

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny must think he is on a roll. The same-sex marriage referendum has been passed, Ireland's economy keeps on getting better and both Fine Gael and Labour are up in the most recent opinion poll.

All of which raises one huge question - might the Taoiseach be tempted to call an early general election this year instead of hanging on until 2016 as he has always promised?

A poll yesterday will certainly have encouraged some government TDs to take their old campaign posters out of the garden shed. It suggests that the Coalition is enjoying a post-referendum "gay bounce", with Fine Gael on 28pc (up three) and Labour on 10pc (up two).

That may still be some way off the 45pc combined support they would need to be certain of a second term, but it does show the political tide flowing strongly in their direction.

Not for the first time, Kenny and Joan Burton are benefiting from the lack of a credible alternative. Sinn Fein (21pc, down one) seem to have hit a glass ceiling, while Fianna Fail (19pc, no change) look to be in disarray after the shock resignation of Senator Averil Power.

As for the Independents and smaller parties (22pc, down four), they too are feeling the squeeze - probably because voters have started to focus on who could actually form a government as the election draws closer.

So, does Enda Kenny feel lucky enough to pull the trigger? In recent days, the Coalition has certainly been acting like an administration with precious little time left.

Ministers are busy ticking off items on their to-do lists, raising suspicions that the decks are being cleared for an election in autumn or even sooner.

The Aer Lingus deal is an obvious example. Against most experts' predictions, Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe finally won permission to sell off the Government's 25pc stake in the national airline.

reckless

Since this will be deeply unpopular with some voters, particularly in north Dublin constituencies, it is either an extremely brave or extremely reckless move, depending on your point of view.

If the Aer Lingus sale was a clear victory for Fine Gael over Labour, last Friday's public sector pay deal quickly evened the score. The Lansdowne Road Agreement proves that Bertie Ahern's social partnership model is alive and well, buying industrial peace at a cost of €2,000 for every civil servant in the country.

Fine Gael backbencher Eoghan Murphy has called this "crazy", and he is far from alone - but if it keeps the unions happy then Labour will see it as cheap at twice the price.

A number of other factors are making the idea of a 2015 election sound more attractive in Government Buildings. Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has resolved the dispute with teachers over Junior Cert reform, removing the nightmare scenario of a strike during exam season.

The economic news is improving, with unemployment below 10pc last week for the first time since 2008.

However, the Government still has one big-ticket item that cannot be brought forward. Budget day is set in stone for October, when Michael Noonan should have roughly €2bn to divvy up in tax cuts and spending hikes.

That is by far the strongest argument for the Coalition to sit tight a few months longer - and in the end it is likely to be decisive.

Kenny's more foolhardy advisers will urge him to cut loose soon while the going is good. They may point out that any number of things can go wrong between now and the last possible date of April 2016.

To name two, Irish Water might fail its Eurostat test or a Greek exit from the euro could plunge the entire EU into crisis.

At heart, however, Enda is a cautious man. He is also old enough to remember two other Fine Gael taoisigh who went to the country ahead of schedule.

Liam Cosgrave and John Bruton were both booted out of office - at least partly because Irish voters hate the idea that their leaders are trying to pull a fast one.

Kenny is certainly on a winning streak. To bet all his chips on an early election that people do not want or need, however, might well be pushing the Taoiseach's luck too far.

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