Tuesday 22 February 2011

Ireland's call, Kenny's choice

There is a peculiar air of unreality around the Irish election campaign. The big issue seems to be whether one-time teachers like Enda Kenny, the man likely to be Taoiseach by the weekend, should continue to access teachers' pensions (which he has decided not to take while in office). However, the real issue is whether it is good for Ireland to face a Fine Gael minority government rather than the long anticipated coalition with Labour.

To be fair, Kenny has fought a pretty good campaign, though he started it with a reputation for leadership so low that the only way was up, and as predicted here, Labour has provided a spectacular object lesson in how not to win elections, schizophrenically tacking left on tax and spend policy while running ads intended to undermine Fine Gael's appeal to middle class, fiscally conservative voters. The party leader, Eamon Gilmore, who had a brief moment not so long ago when he could credibly talk of himself as a future Taoiseach, has lost his personal lead as potential Taoiseach to the new kid on the block, Micheal Martin, who has rescued Fianna Fail from oblivion if not a pretty crushing defeat with as few as 30 seats. More seriously, his strategy of talking of higher taxes for those earning over €100k (£85k) a year could have cost him a swathe of Dublin seats, as Fine Gael is now leading the capital's polls.

Even so, Labour is still likely to achieve a result that will come close to Dick Spring's 33 seats (from a 166-member Dail) in 1992, and Fine Gael seems certain to exceeed 70 seats. (The Guardian will be disappointed that Sinn Fein will probably have to settle for a dozen seats at most, though Gerry Adams will probably take a seat). But with a swathe of independents, including assorted Trotskyists, likely to win seats, the temptation for Kenny could be to ignore Labour and cobble together a coalition with the independents. However, Garret Fitzgerald, a former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, has struck a timely note of caution in this respect in a speech, as the Irish Times reported:
Dr FitzGerald said such a coalition would be “much more solid” than seeking support from Independents, which he described as “disastrous”. “With Independents you have no idea. They can blackmail you for something in their constituency,” he warned. Dr FitzGerald believes the two parties can sort out their differences. “If they sort those out and stick together for five years, you have the kind of majority needed to do all the unpopular things that need to be done.”
Kenny has sought to increase his international standing during the campaign with visits to Chancellor Merkel and EU President Jose Manuel Barroso, intended to suggest that he could re-negotiate the stiff interest rates demanded for the Irish bailout. Even if he does, he faces a pretty tough time as Taoiseach. It would be crazy to go into it without a strong partner in government, and Labour is still the only serious option. Gilmore has started to remind people of this and to rein in the more damaging rhetoric. Kenny needs to show he means business, by urging vote transfers to Labour on Friday, if he wants the chance to lead as Taoiseach rather than forever having to buy off the whims of unreliable independents.

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