Government’s first U-turn

AND so to the Government’s first U-turn. More specficially, the first for the new Taoiseach.

AND so to the Government’s first U-turn. More specficially, the first for the new Taoiseach.

In opposition, Enda Kenny was adamant that the previous Government did not go far enough in reducing the number of Ministers of State from 20 to 15. If Fine Gael achieved power, the number would be further reduced to 12, he said.

Political Notebook by Mick Mulholland

And what did he do in his first full day in office? He proposed to his Cabinet that 15 Ministers of State be appointed. It made all the heady rhetoric of last Wednesday look absurd.

In one fell swoop, Mr Kenny had reduced himself to nothing more than a windbag in the eyes of those who wanted real political change and not just idle talk. Will some politicians ever learn? Can they grasp a basic tenet of politics, particularly at a time of an unprecedented economic crisis?

It is that you must do everything possible to retain your credibility with the public at all times. Enda Kenny came into the Dail last week, oozing humility and promising a new kind of politics.

The humility was necessary. Mr Kenny is a lucky man. He asked the Irish people for an opportunity to be Taoiseach, a huge honour by any standards.Timing and circumstances were on his side. That is not to take from the enormous work he put into rebuilding Fine Gael.

But politics is sometimes about timing and circumstances. And, in the end, they fell in abundance in Mr Kenny’s favour.

Mr Kenny’s humility was also necessary in that he has yet to prove himself as Taoiseach. Up to the election, a significant body of voters were sceptical that he would make the grade in high office. He now has to prove them wrong.

In the Dail last week, the Taoiseach spoke at some length about change and a new kind of politics. So did others. There was even talk about the State’s period of mourning being over.

It is not. The mourning will end only when the Republic emerges into safe economic waters again. And not until then. “This day marks a new beginning,’’ said Mr Kenny. “On Friday February 25th 2011, the people spoke.’’ He added: “Today, we re-create our proud Republic. Today we think of all the good men and women who have gone before us in this place.’’

Mr Kenny spoke especially of former Taoisigh like John A Costello, Liam Cosgrave, Eamon de Valera, Sean Lemass, Jack Lynch, Garret FitzGerald, John Bruton…. “who had no priority other than the national good’’.

Mr Kenny was a bit wide of the mark. It was Mr Lynch’s 1977 Fianna Fail manifesto which sowed the seeds of the economic rot that followed later in that decade and into the 1980s. It was the failure of the FG-Labour government, led by Dr FitzGerald, to come to grips with the economic problems in the 1980s that prolonged the recession.

It was unfair of Mr Kenny not to include Albert Reynolds in the list of Taoisigh, given his enormous achievements in the peace process. Mr Reynolds’s work on the North put the contribution of Fine Gael Taoisigh in that area in the shade.

The Taoiseach told us that no nation in the world had such a history of courage in the face of adversity or resilience in the face of challenge. “Our task is more than the rebuilding of an economy or the rescue of a reputation,’’ he declared. “Our task is to create a new context of confidence and drive.’’

On the following day, Mr Kenny and Eamon Gilmore decided restricting job numbers would not be a feature of their administration. There would be 15 Ministers of State, despite the fact that the same administration will soon be looking to the public service to reduce numbers significantly.

Fianna Fail Chief Whip Sean O Fearghail was right when he said that less than 24 hours after promising an end to “old politics’’, the Government had abandoned one of its key pledges. Mr O Fearghail added: “It is disappointing that just a day after such effective rhetoric on new starts and ‘fundamental change’ that it should be abandoned in favour of old style politics and jobs for the boys.’’

Quite. Mr Kenny’s choice of Cabinet Ministers reflected, in the main, his desire to reward those who had stood by him in the unsuccessful heave against him by Richard Bruton and attempt to introduce youth and a gender balance.

There were some staggering omissions, not least Laois-Offaly’s Charlie Flanagan. Mr Flangan was a highly effective justice spokesman before the heave. His work rate and Dail performance put him on par with Richard Bruton at that time. Both were head and shoulders above their colleagues.

After the heave, in which Mr Flanagan backed Mr Bruton, he was made spokesman on children’s affairs in anticipation of a referendum. Mr Flanagan at least deserved a junior ministry.

There were others. Limerick’s Dan Neville did a huge amount of work, quietly and effectively, in the area of mental health. He was the obvious choice to replace John Moloney, who did an impressive job in very difficult circumstances, in the Department of Health.

Mr Moloney, by the way, was appointed to office too late in the day. Had he been given the job when funding was available, he would have made a huge impact in an area which he showed a keen expertise and appreciation of its value. Equally, the loss of Mr Moloney’s Dail seat was a setback for politics and, indeed, Laois-Offaly.

There has been much talk of ignoring youth and women in the Cabinet make-up. Of course, young people must be given their head and it is imperative that the political system be improved to ensure more women are elected to the Dail.

But the accusation that sexism led to Joan Burton’s exclusion from the Department of Finance was nonsense. The blunt reality is that Ms Burton joined Mr Gilmore in opposing everything and failing to put an alternative policy in its place.

Chickens will come home to roost for this Government, and particularly Labour, when more funding is given to the banks and public service numbers are cut. Ms Burton left many hostages to fortune over the years. Brendan Howlin, who got the job, has been handed a political time bomb.

Mr Gilmore read the signs correctly when he said that his party would face “a forest of placards’’ in the time ahead. That is why, presumably, he decided to seek ministerial asylum in the relatively politically tranquil pastures of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

He has taken on board the trade portfolio as well, and he will be expected to deliver on it.

Back to Mr Kenny. “Starting today, I want to close the gap between politics and the people, between government and the governed,’’ he told the Dail last week.

“I want to renew government in people’s hearts and imagination as a true reflection of their own standards, their own conscience and their own values.’’ He spoke of the need for “values of self-awareness, compassion, integrity, respect, dignity, kindness, courage, generosity, affection, authenticity, hope’’.

And wait for it! “And especially, truth and trust,’’ the Taoiseach added. Where does all that sit with the first U-turn?

The symbolism of the first U-turn, and the message it sent out, should not be underestimated.

A bad start.