Tuesday 21 November 2017

Andrew Lynch: Enda Kenny has the money to buy the election - if he spends it wisely

An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, TD during a ceremony to marking the 99th Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising at the GPO, O’Connell Street, Dublin
An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, TD during a ceremony to marking the 99th Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising at the GPO, O’Connell Street, Dublin

Has the political tide finally begun to turn in Enda Kenny's favour?

Most opinion polls these days say yes, but they also show that the tide remains a frighteningly long way out.

As the clock ticks down to a general election now one year away at most, Kenny and Joan Burton are locked in a race against time, with plenty of money to spend but no agreement on how best to turn it into votes.

The Government can take at least a few crumbs of comfort from yesterday's latest Sunday Independent/Millward Brown survey.

Fine Gael are just about the country's most popular party at 25pc (no change), while Labour have got a modest bounce to 8pc (up two).

As for the Opposition, Sinn Fein seems to have taken a small hit from the latest sex abuse scandal (24pc, down two) and Fianna Fail's failure to make progress (19pc, no change) means it is still on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

However, the poll's most interesting numbers have nothing to do with party support. It seems that after seven years of crippling austerity, more and more voters believe it's payback time.

With our economy finally headed in the right direction, huge numbers of us want the Government to cut water charges (61pc), the Universal Social Charge (60pc), income tax (54pc), property tax (47pc) and PRSI (38pc).

In other words, the political game has entered a new phase. For most of its time in office the Government has had to make tough choices about which people to tax and which services to cut.

Now it has to decide who should benefit first from the recovery - a nicer problem, but still one that involves serious political risks.

Nobody can deny that Michael Noonan will have some cash to splash. Ireland has officially the fastest-growing economy in Europe, unemployment is about to dip below 10pc and last week's Exchequer returns brought in €545m more than expected.


The Finance Minister is due to make a Spring Statement on April 28, which should confirm he has scope for roughly €2bn worth of tax cuts and spending increases in October's pre-election Budget.

If Noonan is right to boast that our economy can now "take off like a rocket", why is the Government's political comeback so sluggish by comparison? The obvious answer must be that most voters are still not seeing any real improvement in their personal situations.

Having made huge sacrifices to get this country back on track, they naturally feel entitled to at least a small share of the rewards.

The current political row over mortgage costs showed why Noonan's priorities still seem a little wonky. Many Irish homeowners are being hammered by standard variable rates that are far in excess of the European average, which can add thousands to a family's annual bill.

Since the Government in theory owns most of our banks, it should be able to do something about this. Sadly, Noonan's half-hearted response suggests he won't be knocking down the doors of AIB or Permanent TSB any time soon.

The Government has moved heaven and Earth to appease water charge protesters, most of whom would never vote Fine Gael or Labour in a million years, but is abandoning squeezed middle-class mortgage holders who should really be its target audience.

Enda Kenny always assumed that if his coalition turned the economy around by mid-2015, a second term would be in the bag. After all, the re-election slogan practically writes itself: "We saved this country from ruin - don't hand your car keys back to the idiots who crashed it."

Now Kenny and Burton are realising that it may not be so simple. Over in Britain, David Cameron is fighting a general election on almost exactly the same platform but has a 50-50 chance at best of staying in 10 Downing Street.

It seems that UK voters are more interested in future plans than past achievements, and why would Irish voters feel any differently?

"You don't look for credit in politics," Kenny said last year, "and if you do, you're a fool." Soon the Taoiseach's spending choices will tell us just how wise or foolish he really is.

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