Monday, 14 February 2011

Will Fine Gael govern alone in Ireland?

Enda Kenny has not exactly had a good press in his years as leader of Fine Gael. Last year, I joined RTE discussion shows where his leadership was being compared with that of Gordon Brown. Last week, he was much criticised for failing to join a TV debate with the new Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin and Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore. And Gilmore had until recently been expected to be in a position to dictate the terms of a new coalition government, if not demand the post of Taoiseach as his more ambitious election posters optimistically declare across Ireland.

Yet today all the talk is of Enda for Taoiseach at the head of a Fine Gael government propped up by some of the 15 or so independents expected to triumph as Fianna Fail gets a deserved drubbing from the voters. The Taoiseach-in-waiting has even headed off to Germany for a photocall with his Christian Democrat colleague, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to discuss possible changes to the economic bailout. Meanwhile, Labour's hopes of exceeding the 33 seats that Dick Spring won in 1992 are starting to fade, especially if the constituency polls are to be believed.

As it happens, I'm not sure all the polls are right. Fianna Fail's 15% showing seems too low, and Martin has had an impressive performance suggesting he is a leader who had nothing to do with the government in which he sat as a permanent fixture at the cabinet table. And the vagaries of Ireland's PR system could deliver transfers from left-wing parties to those on Gilmore's slate. it would also be a big risk for Kenny to try to govern with fickle independents in some sort of minority government rather than having Labour in a stable coalition which could have 105 seats between them.

Yet, there is also a sense in which a fundamental tactical error by Gilmore has blown his expected gale - talk of Labour taking 40+ seats was commonplace - off course. Winning two seats in most Dublin constituencies requires the votes and transfers of middle class voters who have been badly affected by the country's economic crisis as much as those of traditional Labour voters or transfers from the likes of Sinn Fein. Yet when Gilmore should have been reassuring those voters, he fell into the classic trap of tacking left by promoting higher taxes for people earning over €100k (£85k) which has been effectively attacked by Fine Gael. This has seen Labour's vote starting to fall back - as low as 20% in one poll yesterday (and lower in aggregate constituency polls), where the party was scoring in the high 20s and low 30s not so long ago. If Fianna Fail's vote is understated, Labour could fall further.

Of course, there is much to play for in the next 12 days, and the public may respond to Kenny's go-it-alone declarations by giving Labour a stronger mandate. Labour still seems likely to have a big increase in vote and seats, and Fianna Fail to face unprecedented losses. But it is just starting to feel that far from being the great breakthrough election that many had predicted, this will be the one where the baton simply passes to Fine Gael minus any of the reforming instincts that Labour could bring to the table.

Good governance in Ireland requires a strong Labour showing on Friday week. Gilmore should take a few lessons from his veteran colleague and former finance minister Ruairi Quinn on how to play the economy ahead of tonight's five-leader debate. He has no time to lose.

1 comment:

Terry Connolly said...

Excellent analysis - enjoyed and valued that.
A Fine Gael "man".