Sunday 23 October 2016

Andrew Lynch: Why Enda Kenny and Joan Burton must end confusion about election 'marriage'

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

"Enda Kenny and I met in a room that I'm reliably informed is the boudoir!"

Tanaiste Joan Burton dropped this bombshell at the Cabinet's final pre-summer gathering in lavish Lissadell House last month, presumably as a joke about their happy working relationship.

The Taoiseach responded in similar style, quipping, "Despite all the cynics, Joan, who say the 'oul marriage politically isn't working, we're getting on well together".

In fact, all this fooling around was just cover for a deadly serious discussion. With the general election now most likely to be held in February or March, Kenny and Burton must use the remainder of the summer break to work out their overall strategy.

Specifically, the Fine Gael and Labour leaders are faced with one vital question - should they offer themselves as a team or fight separate campaigns and hope to form another coalition afterwards?

In recent weeks, both parties have been all over the map on this debate. At the MacGill Summer School legendary Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery claimed that the Government's best chance of a second term was to stick closely together.

He added that although the two parties "don't really like each other", splitting up before the campaign would dilute their strongest message of stability and security.

At least some senior people in Fine Gael seem to agree with him. Chief Whip Paul Kehoe said last week that he expects both parties to agree a voting transfer pact.

Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe has gone further, calling yesterday for the Coalition partners to offer a joint pledge on economic policies.

On the other hand, some Labour TDs sound much more lukewarm. Junior ministers Kevin Humphreys and Aodhan O Riordain have flatly declared that at election time they want to go it alone.


Derek Nolan, chairman of Labour's manifesto committee, says they are making a mistake and he will be urging his boss to overrule them.

What can we make of all this confusion? Quite simply, the Taoiseach and Tanaiste are not giving their footsoldiers any leadership on the issue.

Despite Enda and Joan's public backslapping, they seem in two minds over how to maximise the chances of renewing their wedding vows.

On one level, a pre-election pact would make total sense. By their own admission, neither Fine Gael nor Labour has any desire to hook up with anyone else.

In crucial constituencies such as Joan Burton's own back yard of Dublin West, a transfer deal might be the difference between triumph and disaster.

There is just one problem. History shows that whenever two parties campaign on a joint ticket, the bigger one reaps all the rewards.

For whatever reason. most voters seem to think there is no point in electing the monkey when they can choose the organ grinder instead.

Nobody knows this better than Enda Kenny himself. The 2007 Mullingar Accord between himself and Pat Rabbitte led to big gains for Fine Gael, nothing at all for Labour and another stint in opposition for both parties.

At the 2011 election there was no deal and both parties sailed into Government Buildings.

Kenny has at least made one big decision about his future. Yesterday the Taoiseach announced that he only wants to serve one more term, contradicting his Chief Whip who had recently claimed he would carry on to 2021 and beyond.

Clearly Enda did not want to go the same way as Charlie Haughey, who once said with a straight face, "some Chinese leaders go on until their 80s" and was taken down by his spooked backbenchers a few months later.

Instead, most people in Fine Gael expect Kenny to stay until 2018 and then run for President - even if Miriam O'Callaghan might have something to say about that.

All this will be irrelevant unless Enda and Joan stop the dithering soon and agree on their election strategy. Otherwise, they may be spending a lot less time in the Lissadell House boudoir - and more in the political retirement home.

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