herald

Friday 1 August 2014

Is Enda turning into Ireland's luckiest general?

Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Photo: Mark Condren
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Mark Condren

WHEN Barack Obama passed his controversial Healthcare Bill back in 2010, television cameras caught vice president Joe Biden whispering into his ear: "This is a big f***ing deal."

We don't know if any of Enda Kenny's colleagues congratulated him with that kind of enthusiasm yesterday, but they would have been fully justified in doing so. The ECB deal on Ireland's bank debt is indeed a massive achievement for the Taoiseach and potentially a real turning point for his Government – as long as they know how to sell it properly.

Opinion is divided as to how good this agreement really is. Even the Government's biggest critics have to admit that it is better than no deal at all. In political terms, Kenny and Michael Noonan placed all their chips on Project Red – and luckily for them the ball has come to rest in the right coloured slot.

Napoleon famously asked for generals who were lucky. Enda Kenny is turning out to be Ireland's luckiest general of all. Just 48 hours ago, he seemed to be in seriously hot water over his shameful refusal to apologise to the Magdalene Laundry women – but all that will be forgotten for a while as he basks in the glory of his biggest political triumph yet.

On Wednesday we had the unedifying spectacle of bleary-eyed TDs pulling an all-nighter to pass legislation that they could barely have read, let alone understood. The Government was rattled by a last-minute leak about the liquidation of Anglo Irish Bank, raising the prospect of a legal battle that could undo months of negotiations.

Now all those hurdles are cleared. Fine Gael strategists have reportedly marked April 2016 as the date of the next General Election. If this deal had collapsed, they might have had to bring that timetable forward by three years.

Nobody apart from its unfortunate staff will mourn the death of Anglo Irish. As a story of recklessness and stupidity, this toxic institution became a perfect symbol of Celtic Tiger hubris. Until now, the Government insisted that it had to be wound down slowly – but now they have dispatched it with the political equivalent of a bullet to the head.

So how will this watershed moment affect the political landscape? The figures are important, but what matters is the psychological impact it could have on the Irish public.

If people believe the worst is over, they will naturally give credit to the parties in power.

However, hanging on to that bounce may be harder than the Government thinks. Michael Noonan might have an extra billion or so to play with every year, but his budgets are still going to be dominated by spending cuts and tax hikes. The financial agenda between now and 2016 is crammed with nasty items such as implementing the property tax, introducing water charges and asking public servants to accept even thinner wage packets.

The Government's narrative will be simple: things may be bad, but they would have been a hell of a lot worse if we hadn't pulled off that ECB deal.

Fianna Fail will claim they could manage the recovery better, while Sinn Fein will carry on protesting that we shouldn't be paying one red cent of the debt at all. The next election will be determined by which party tells the most convincing story – and that should worry FG supporters who know that communicating isn't always the Taoiseach's strong point.

Enda Kenny has won an important political battle. He would do well to remember that the war is still up for grabs.

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