Saturday 22 October 2016

Andrew Lynch: Joan Burton may do a mean Tammy Wynette, but will this be enough?

Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD and the Tanaiste & Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton T.D during a press briefing mark the Government's fourth year in office
Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD and the Tanaiste & Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton T.D during a press briefing mark the Government's fourth year in office

"Buy one, get one free!" Bill Clinton made this offer to American voters while running for the White House in 1992, pledging that he and his wife Hillary would come as a joint package.

Now Enda Kenny and Joan Burton are preparing to do something similar, with the news that Fine Gael and Labour will soon announce a voting transfer pact for the upcoming general election.

If anybody in Leinster House doubted that this alliance would happen, the Government response to last week's Fennelly Report should have put them wise.

Burton did a superb Tammy Wynette impression and stood by her man, even though the document made Kenny look shifty and incompetent.

As a quid pro quo, Fine Gael made it clear that they would not seek the head of Labour-appointed Attorney General Maire Whelan - even though she came out of this murky affair looking worst of all.

Instead of falling apart over Fennelly, the Coalition parties are actually moving closer together.

While controversy was raging last week, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin were putting the finishing touches to a deal that will ask Fine Gael voters to give Labour candidates a helping hand and vice versa.

By a strange coincidence, these two wily ministers are also in charge of framing next month's budget - the Government's best chance to influence public opinion enough to win a second term.

Enda and Joan's pact is about strategy, not policy. The two parties will have separate election manifestos, with Fine Gael promising more tax cuts and Labour putting its emphasis on social spending.

For now, Noonan and Howlin have also agreed that the €1.5bn they have to play around with in Budget 2016 will be split equally between the two.


There is no shortage of ideas for how to spend this money. The Government is reportedly planning a major new transport plan, including a Luas line to Dublin Airport that will involve a tunnel under Glasnevin Cemetery.

A childcare scheme is also in the works, pledging to double maternity leave and provide a second free pre-school year to all families.

Will the pact work? As Labour TDs know all too well, there is a real danger that all the benefits will flow directly to the bigger party.

When Irish voters are presented with a pantomime horse, they tend to focus on the front half and ignore what comes out of the other end.

Joan Burton has another sticky dilemma. She is fighting a rearguard action against left-wing groups such as Sinn Fein and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, who are hoovering up votes, particularly in working-class Dublin.

By shackling itself to a cente-right outfit like Fine Gael, Labour will make it all too easy for rivals to claim that the party has sold its socialist soul.

The pact does, however, have one big advantage. Whatever their faults, Fine Gael and Labour now look like a united team ready and willing to serve in government.

You might think that was a bare minimum for any serious political party - but in fact Enda and Joan are blessed with an opposition that sounds like it is more interested in protest than power.

Fianna Fail have officially ruled out forming a coalition with Fine Gael or Sinn Fein, which effectively would lock them out of Government Buildings for another five years. Sinn Fein, for their part, claim they will not take office until Gerry Adams can be top dog.

Of course, all these promises might become a distant memory once the votes are counted - but right now they make another Fine Gael-Labour coalition look like the only game in town.

With the election now six months away at most, we are in a very strange position. Opinion polls show Fine Gael and Labour at a combined total of around 32pc, nowhere near the 45pc they need to win.

As long as the opposition fails to put up realistic candidates for Taoiseach and Tanaiste, however, Kenny and Burton still have some hope.

Fine Gael and Labour's voting pact will make them the election team to beat. They can indeed be beaten, but only if a credible alternative is willing to take them on.

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