herald

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Andrew Lynch: Enda's fightback is starting from a long way behind

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny

I am still the Boss. That was presumably the message Enda Kenny tried to send by choosing Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run as his walk-on music at the Fine Gael national conference on Saturday night.

The Taoiseach's televised address was certainly a huge improvement on his desperately wooden interview with Miriam O'Callaghan a couple of days previously, but he still needs to pick up the pace in order to make himself a serious candidate for re-election.

In fact, Enda (below) sounded like a man preparing to meet the voters much earlier than his officially preferred election date of April 2016.

promises

He made a series of eye-catching promises, including tax cuts for middle-income earners in next October's Budget and full employment by 2018.

He also hammered home his central argument that Ireland must choose between the Coalition that saved the economy (Fine Gael and Labour, obviously) and two parties that would drive it over a cliff (Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein).

Just before he took to the stage in his home town of Castlebar, however, a new opinion poll showed just how big a mountain he has to climb. While Fine Gael is holding steady at 24pc (no change), Labour has fallen two points to 7pc and is once again in the death zone.

As former bookie and minister Ivan Yates said on the Saturday Night Show, the Coalition would not have "a cat's chance" of winning a second term on those figures or anything like them.

Enda's inner circle claim there is still time to turn things around. They point out that every financial survey these days shows Ireland heading in the right direction, bearing out Finance Minister Michael Noonan's prediction that our economy should eventually "take off like a rocket".

At some point this year, they believe, a recovery will finally kick in and the Government's poll ratings will start to recover too.

Fine Gael is also privately delighted by recent events in Greece, where prime minister Alexis Tsipras has raised the white flag by seeking a four-month extension to its EU/IMF bailout.

This is highly significant for Ireland, not least because Sinn Fein has claimed to be a Celtic version of Syriza and could end up looking as foolish as its Mediterranean comrades.

Over the weekend, Noonan described his Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis as "a rock star", and he certainly did not mean it as a compliment.

In other words, Fine Gael thinks it can win re-election by attacking its main opponents as reckless economic illiterates with no idea of how Europe really works.

The conference's headline-grabbing moment came when Health Minister Leo Varadkar dubbed Gerry Adams "a self-serving phoney" who accepted "dig-outs from his friends" by flying to the US for prostate treatment.

Sinn Fein naturally protested that this was below the belt, but its IRA-linked history means it is hardly in a position to claim the high moral ground.

All this means that the stage is set for an extremely bitter contest between Enda and Gerry, with other parties struggling to make their voices heard.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Joan Burton must be privately irked that Enda gave her just one mention in his Saturday night speech, and a pretty bland one at that.

As for Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin is feeling so neglected that he has publicly challenged the Taoiseach to debate him live on television - a request that gives new meaning to the word "optimism".

There are still quite a few blots on Enda's horizon. Lucinda Creighton's new party is due to launch next week and may take some votes off Fine Gael.

pressure

And if the upcoming Fennelly Report casts doubt on the Taoiseach's explanation of why Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan resigned last year, it would be political dynamite.

Meanwhile, the Irish Water fiasco rumbles on, though Paul Murphy's tense appearance on Friday's Late Late Show suggests that the protesters also feel under severe pressure.

Enda Kenny ended his leader's address with a quote from Michael Collins: "Give us the future, we've had enough of your past."

He now has roughly one year left to persuade us that his Government deserves any kind of future at all.

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