Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

The Leaders – A Party animal or a lonely wallflower?

As the Dail recommences all eyes remain on the party leaders. The traditional winter bloodletting season could make for a bumpy ride, but how are each of our leaders fixed? Here, I take a quick look at their standing.

Enda Kenny – The Taoiseach would seem to be comfortable enough at first glance. To be fair to Enda he has settled into the job and for most people the accusation that he would embarrass himself is a distant memory. He may not be inspirational but he at least appears like a decent and able enough chap. When he is making one of those big speeches with lots of rhetoric, people actually quite like him. It’s not easy to be Taoiseach but Kenny has managed the battlefield quite well. His main problem remains that despite trying to reinvent his image, he always seems no more than one wrong word away from destroying it all. There are two major problems looming that Kenny has to deal with. The first is the Seanad referendum. He has personally invested a huge amount of political capital in this. It was seen as a ‘can’t lose’ referendum, but while still quietly confident there are a few nervous glances towards the polls on the government benches. If the referendum is passed, it gives Kenny a confidence boost and also the chance to spread out some more talk of reforms and change over the coming years. He will see it as a legacy impact for his term. However, should the referendum be lost then make no mistake it will cause rumblings among many who will see it as a personal failure of the Taoiseach. He needs a Yes vote badly. The second problem facing him is the Labour question. So far Enda has managed to tie Eamon Gilmore up in knots and keep him boxed in at every opportunity. Deep down, he knows that Gilmore may come knocking and need help to save his leadership or else a new Labour Leader might start flexing muscles. You don’t walk away from the job of Taoiseach and Enda knows that if Labour got it into their head that they could walk away, then he would be forced to make serious compromises to keep them on board. If this occurred, it will lead to the traditional grumbling in the larger party of any coalition that the tail is wagging the dog and that the Taoiseach has started saving his job ahead of his party. If that talk starts, it only ends one way. However, the job of Taoiseach is all about such decisions and challenges, Enda knows that well. He has started to shift within the party to secure his base. Figures like Phil Hogan and James Reilly no longer hold the influence over the Taoiseach that they once had and Enda may yet play all sides, including the long term game with the Reform Alliance, just to keep everyone sweet enough.

Eamon Gilmore – The Tánaiste continues to hang in there. He knows that he needs something to claim from the budget in order to give him a fighting chance. It’s likely he will get it but it won’t be major. Most accept that rather than €3.1 bn needing to be made up in the budget, the figure will be about €2.8 bn. This could allow Labour claim some victory. The real problem is that Eamon cannot really recover his personal strength. He remains leader because no one else really wants to take the job right now. That can change. Labour could leave him in situ until after the local elections, but this may ruin any chance of even a 2 or 3% recovery to save a few seats. It also means that Labour would need to look at Gilmores leadership next May/June. This timing is poor with another budget looming the following October. Another scenario is that potential rivals go with Eamon on the upcoming budget but do so while still grumbling. The budget gets passed and before Christmas, potential rivals blame its worst parts on Eamon’s failures and remove him. Allowing them some hope of even a tiny bounce before the locals and still saying that the time is too short to blame the new leader for a bad result. It also allows sufficient time for the new leader to talk tough and even look to renegotiate parts of the programme for government in advance of the budget next year. No matter what way one looks at it, Eamon Gilmore is no longer a leader in the real sense. He is on borrowed time, a bit like Haughey in November ’91 to Feb ’92: Everyone knew he was only there by the grace of others and it was only a matter of when.

Micheál Martin – The FF leader continues to wrestle his party and grapple to turn things around. He has had some success and a mild but soft recovery in the polls has calmed some early nerves. Serious questions still present themselves. At times Martin seems to lack the decisive will to make things happen. He avoids risks, doesn’t like doing things quickly and seems to follow the same backroom as his predecessors. He hasn’t shown any drastic change. At other times he goes to the opposite extreme, stifling debate, seeking to impose outcomes and trying to dominate proceedings. The abortion issue was the latest in that kind of cycle. There was only ever one outcome for FF in that debate and it was worrying that the Leader or those around him could not see that. This has led some to say that Martin is weak or in a weak position. Martin is not weak but he doesn’t always pick his fights well and a lack of foresight is more the problem. His position is safe enough for now. There is no value to FF in changing leader. In fact Martin could still do a huge favour as a former minister in leading the charge for openness and answers on the activities of the last cabinet and what happened around the table. He is still the best placed to engage with the Irish people on what the hell actually happened. Unfortunately like his predecessor Brian Cowen, he wants to move on rather than dwell on the past. FF might find dwelling on the past might be the best thing they could do right now. The local elections will be a test for Martin. FF needs to be in the mid 20s to hold what they have at local level, more or less. They seem on course for that. A slight increase would be taken as a big victory. Should the party numbers fall though, questions may come quickly.

Gerry Adams – It’s been another interesting year for Gerry. From his entertaining, if strange, twitter account, to the SF poll battle people continue to ponder what his future might hold. SF is doing well in the polls. If they got 19% in a general election it would be a massive achievement and major step forward. The problem is they are struggling to understand why they are not even higher, especially given the FF figure. My answer to that, as always, is organisation. SF is still building up theirs. Many do suggest however that Gerry is not the man to lead SF in this battle. He has struggled to impose himself on southern politics and to really show a genuine grasp of the debate. SF has been much better served by Doherty, Tobin and McDonald in this regard. SF may need the injection of new leadership to bring some impetus to the project. This carries two problems; the first is that SF needs to retain its strong link with the North. Can a southern leader do that? Secondly, SF still has to decide its path. The party is struggling to define its enemies in the same way as FF did many years ago. It does not really know whether it should be attacking its traditional rivals FG, or whether it needs to hit FF hard to stop any recovery or strike out at Labour to eat into their vote. SF is fighting battles on every front and eventually will have to pick a side and deal with each one by one. A new leader will be forced to accept that. Gerry helps them avoid it for now although even he seems increasingly uneasy about it. I don’t see SF changing leader this side of a general election unless they start to fall back in the polls and I don’t think that’s likely at this point. There is a problem for the general populace in identifying with Adams however. He reminds me more and more of De Valera in the 1950’s: there are stronger leaders in the ranks below, people perhaps better prepared for the new age, but he is a hero within the party, seen as a patriot and an icon and therefore nobody is really able to bring themselves to criticise him or say his time might be past. De Valera stayed a decade too long, will it be the same for Adams?

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