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Saturday 16 December 2017

Enda's holiday beard is gone, but the new term could still be hairy

Enda Kenny has had a brilliant summer. Judging from a recent photograph of the Taoiseach's holiday in Killarney, the most difficult decision he made was to stop shaving for a few days.

Now it's back to school time - and with a big electoral test on the horizon, the pressure on Enda and his classmates is about to get a lot more intense.

The reshuffled cabinet will hold its first post-summer meeting tomorrow, ahead of the various party think-ins and the Dail's return on September 17.

There are two by-elections scheduled for October 10 and the budget will be unveiled just four days later.

All these events are leading up to the ultimate political battle - a general election that is barely 18 months away and looks like being the most unpredictable in Irish history.

While the Fine Gael-Labour coalition has had a mostly terrible 2014 so far, all is not yet lost. Joan Burton's arrival as Tanaiste, a new-look cabinet and a controversy-free summer have all helped to steady the ship.

The upcoming Dail term will certainly be a major test of Kenny's leadership, but it should also challenge Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein to prove that they can provide a realistic alternative.

axe

For now, Budget 2015 is obviously top of the Government agenda. The good news is that thanks to some positive economic developments, Michael Noonan will not have to swing the austerity axe as hard as originally scheduled.

The bad news is that several other ministers have lost the run of themselves - hinting at a whole range of tax cuts, public sector pay rises and whatever you're having yourself. In other words, Enda's first big task is to start managing expectations.

Whatever money the Government ends up giving away in October, it will quickly be wiped out by the water charges due to hit next January.

If people are encouraged to hope for more, they could end up severely disappointed - and they will also know exactly who to blame.

Some other key political questions look set to be answered between now and Christmas. Can Kenny and Burton establish a decent working relationship?

Are the cabinet's five new members ready for prime time? Will Leo Varadkar bring some leadership to the Department of Health?

Most intriguingly, might the Government be forced to eat its words and revisit the abortion issue? One more human tragedy would surely make the moral case for another referendum almost unanswerable.

opposition

Over on the opposition side of Dail Eireann, Fianna Fail have gone into election mode already. Micheal Martin has fired the 2016 contest's first shots by promising to cut property tax for pensioners and others on low incomes.

This may sound like a return to the cynical auction politics that got us into so much trouble - but since the Government are doing exactly the same, they are hardly in a position to complain.

In fact, Fianna Fail are going back to the future in more ways than one. Martin reportedly wants his election campaign to be headed up by PJ Mara, the legendary spin doctor for Charlie Haughey who once ordered journalists to, "Stop nibbling at my leader's bum!"

Scrap Saturday fans may remember Mara as a figure of fun, but in reality he is a superb strategist. For the Soldiers of Destiny his comeback would put that of Kate Bush in the shade.

Enda Kenny has thankfully shaved off his summer beard. For the Taoiseach and his Government, however, this autumn could still turn out to be extremely hairy.

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