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Sunday 11 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Why Leo Varadkar is this term's star pupil but Kelly may be Labour weak link

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar

Earlier this month, the Government quietly voted to give itself an extra week's summer holiday in 2015. In fairness to Enda Kenny and his cabinet, the poor dears obviously need a full 60 days to brace themselves for what lies ahead.

To adapt an old Fianna Fail slogan, their end-of-term report card reads: "A little bit done, a hell of a lot more to do" - not exactly encouraging with the political equivalent of the Leaving Cert looming into view.

Let's take the positives first. So far, this year has been largely free of the scandals and cock-ups that made 2014 such an 'annus horribilis' in Government Buildings.

With toxic ministers such as Phil Hogan, Alan Shatter and James Reilly all gone or demoted, the coalition has looked like a much more competent team. The marriage equality referendum helped to make Ireland feel good about itself again.

RECOVERY

Most importantly, the fall in unemployment to under 10pc proves our economy is finally in recovery mode -and as long as this continues, Fine Gael and Labour have at least some chance of winning a second term.

On the downside, this is a Government still haunted by its previous blunders. Irish Water remains a thorn in its side, with over half of all customers refusing to pay their first bills.

Despite his frequent promises, the Taoiseach has dismally failed to secure any debt write-down from the EU and now no longer pretends to even try. Meanwhile, the coalition keeps sending out mixed economic messages, cutting lone parents' benefits one week and raising the minimum wage almost immediately afterwards.

As a result, Fine Gael and Labour just cannot get any momentum going in the opinion polls. The most recent survey shows them on a combined figure of 32pc - not a completely hopeless position but way off the 45pc or so they would need to get re-elected.

So who are the class's star pupils and prize dunces? Enda Kenny and Joan Burton have kept relatively low profiles this term, allowing their ministers to get on with the donkey work.

The Taoiseach and Tanaiste seem to have established a pretty good working relationship, but there is one big question they must answer soon - whether to split up before the election or fight it on a joint ticket.

Within Fine Gael, Health Minister Leo Varadkar is the shining star and public choice to succeed Enda despite his glaring lack of concrete achievements. Among Leo's leadership rivals, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney have shown safe pairs of hands but could do with a little more charisma. Baby-faced Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe also deserves an honourable mention for facing down union leaders and pushing through the sale of Aer Lingus.

Turning to the naughty step, there are signs that veteran Finance Minister Michael Noonan is losing his touch. He was all over the place during the Greek crisis, sneering at his "rock star" counterpart in Athens and then innocently denying he had taken a hard line. This should make the coalition nervous, since Noonan's budget next October is absolutely pivotal to their general election prospects a few months later.

TOUGHER

On the Labour side, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin earned a feather in his cap by negotiating a new national pay deal. Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has proved to be tougher than she looks and warded off a threatened teachers' strike over Junior Cert reform.

Labour's weakest link could well turn out to be deputy leader Alan Kelly. The fiery Environment Minister has adopted a 'take no prisoners' approach to both Irish Water and social housing, setting out ambitious targets that may soon come back to haunt him.

Thanks to his gruff demeanour, AK47 is shaping up as Labour's answer to Brian Cowen - and we all know how that turned out.

Overall, this Government has many solid performers but still looks like less than the sum of its parts - and is only still in the game because of its opposition's weaknesses. Enda, Joan and their ministers should enjoy the week's break. This time next year, some of them will have more time on their hands than they know what to do with.

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