herald

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Why Enda should - and shouldn't - call an early election

Enda Kenny is to be pressed to increase the number of migrants to be admitted to Ireland
Enda Kenny is to be pressed to increase the number of migrants to be admitted to Ireland

Should Taoiseach Enda Kenny put us all out of our misery and call an early general election?

After a highly-encouraging opinion poll yesterday, some Fine Gael ministers are urging him to dissolve the Dail immediately after next month's Budget. Others, however, want him to stick with Plan A and wait until the Government's full five years are up next spring.

So what are the main arguments swirling around the Taoiseach's head as he considers the pros and cons of a November contest?

REASONS TO GO FOR IT

1. The tide is flowing in Enda's direction. Yesterday's poll in the Sunday Business Post gave Fine Gael (28pc, up three) and Labour (10pc, up two) 38pc between them - within shouting distance of the 45pc they need to guarantee a second term.

Now that Ireland officially has the fastest-growing economy in Europe, a feel-good factor could push this Coalition over the winning line.

2. The budget may be a real game-changer. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan is gearing up to throw the kitchen sink at Budget 2016, with a 2pc Universal Social Charge cut and a €200m childcare package among the goodies on offer.

As Government TDs bask in the warm afterglow that this should create, what better time to ask voters for another job contract?

3. It would catch the opposition with their pants down. Fianna Fail (18pc, no change) and Sinn Fein (16pc, down two) are still struggling to put forward a convincing alternative. Meanwhile, new parties such as Renua Ireland and the Social Democrats have not exactly set the country on fire either.

At Fine Gael's think-in last week, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney told the Taoiseach: "Our manifesto can be ready in 48 hours." An early election would expose their opponents' weaknesses and bolster one of the Coalition's main slogans: "It's a choice between us or chaos."

4. Less danger of a freak accident. If some crisis - such as another abortion tragedy or a Greek exit from the euro - flares up suddenly after Christmas, the Government will have no time to recover from it. Going to the country now eliminates that risk.

5. This Coalition has nothing left to do anyway. With no major legislation left to pass, most ministers are just twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the whistle.

Like soldiers on the eve of battle, some just want to get the whole thing over with.

REASONS TO PLAY SAFE

1. Things can get even better. While the budget tax cuts should be extremely popular, workers will not see any change in their pay packets until January.

Kenny might be wise to let the economic recovery sink in for as long as possible before heading out to meet voters again.

2. It could look cynical. Fine Gael have tried to sell themselves as a beacon of responsibility, putting the country first over any selfish party interest. Cutting and running early would destroy that image at a stroke.

3. Labour are dead against it. Tanaiste Joan Burton made it crystal clear in a recent interview that she wanted the election to be in March 2016.

Technically, the Taoiseach can overrule her - but it would sour relations between two parties that are trying to agree a vote-transfer pact.

4. November is a miserable month for canvassing. Bertie Ahern - who despite his faults knew a thing or two about winning elections - always said that he liked to campaign with the sun on his back.

By contrast, most Irish winter evenings are dark, cold and wet - not exactly a time when you want politicians knocking on your door every five minutes.

5. History says it is not a good idea. Enda Kenny has already been part of two Fine Gael-Labour coalitions that called early elections and ended up being handed their P45s.

For whatever reason, it seems that Irish voters hate being called out to the polls before it is strictly necessary - and they might dump an over-eager Enda just as they dumped Liam Cosgrave in 1977 and John Bruton in 1997.

Last week, the Taoiseach reportedly told one of his party's senior figures: "I just don't know what to do." He now has less than a month to stop agonising - and make the biggest decision of his political life.

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