Cowen stumbles, Kenny could fall, but Gilmore and Gormley are flying

IT IS always tempting to begin a column about Irish politicians at this time of year by writing “as they head off for the summer”, but out of respect for Independent TD Finian McGrath I decided not to do so.

McGrath — a decent man, but too frequently a voluble moaner — chastised the media earlier this week for “telling the whole country that we have all gone on 11 weeks’ holidays”. He points out that many of his colleagues are in the Dáil, working on committees and doing constituency work. But, bless him, he did write, “I have no problem with journalists having a go at TDs”.

That’s good to know, Finian. TDs should be busy at the moment; they get paid a lot of money to do their work, the country is heading into recession and they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in the year since the last general election, have they?

Whatever about our maligned, moaning, Government-supporting backbenchers, most of the party leaders have serious thinking to do over the summer about their parties and their strategy for the autumn.

Some of the end-of-term report cards will make for sorry reading, with the exception perhaps of the Green party leader, John Gormley, who has made the transition from the opposition benches to cabinet with singular ease and who is basking in every minute of it.

On Monday, when French president Nicolas Sarkozy waltzed in for his much-hyped visit, Gormley managed to talk to him for 20 minutes, which is more than Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny got.

Gormley has reason to be happy — he is exactly where he wants to be politically, tackling some of what are seen as core green issues, while continuing to wave his “get out of jail card” when required, which amounts to an insistence that as a small party in a coalition government, the Greens have to be realistic about what they can and cannot achieve in five years.

He has handled himself adroitly in his many media outings, swatting away the awkward questions with ease and stressing that the Greens are still on a learning curve, even though that learning curve ended about 11 months ago.

In terms of the other party leaders, the visits to Dublin by Gerry Adams no longer create the same media scrum and his profile has understandably diminished in parallel with the relative stability of Northern Ireland. Last year’s general election results were a big disappointment, but the prominent role played by the party in the Lisbon referendum ensured maximum coverage, particularly for the party’s MEP, Mary Lou McDonald, whose media performances were regarded as much improved, and will add to the feeling that if the party is to increase its number of seats in the Dáil it will be dependent not on lightning visits from the northern leadership, but on credible performances from its stalwarts in the republic.

Sinn Féin was back on familiar territory during the Lisbon campaign in contrast to last year when Adams stumbled, waffled and flip-flopped during the general election campaign.

Eamon Gilmore eased comfortably into the leadership of the Labour party and has been deservedly praised for his calm, confident and effective Dáil and media performances. He looks and sounds authoritative without having to employ the arrogance and acidic put-downs that Pat Rabbitte specialised in. He also appears to be more empathetic and in touch with his own party. But the decision to use the Lisbon campaign to promote next year’s local election candidates at the expense of convincing the electorate why it was in their interests to vote yes backfired.

Gilmore is also quite convincing when being stern. The same cannot be asserted about Enda Kenny and it is not unreasonable to wonder how long he can continue to be Fine Gael leader given his lack of authority, his disastrous attempts at being empathetic and his failure to convince during his Dáil and media set pieces.

In one sense it is understandable why Kenny appears to have no fire in his belly: he led Fine Gael to an impressive recovery last year, but the newly enlarged party was all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Kenny has never been convincing in opposition, and while there were those who argued that going into government would enable him to prove his worth, this is now irrelevant. There must be considerable worry within Fine Gael about four more years with Kenny at the helm. As Gilmore and others steal his thunder, he appears more wooden than ever. The baby Blueshirts elected last year have grabbed the limelight and Richard Bruton continually demonstrates that he, and not Kenny, should be party leader.

At least Kenny doesn’t have to worry about being overshadowed by the leader of the PDs, Senator Ciarán Cannon. Actually, it seems pointless devoting any space to the PDs and what plans they have for the future because any such plans are in vain.

Brian Cowen’s political honeymoon was unusually short and a reminder that Bertie Ahern got out at just the right time. Cowen’s wounds are largely self-inflicted and he certainly cannot blame the media for being unduly hard on him. In fact, quite the opposite.

Much of the media coverage of Cowen in the immediate aftermath of his assumption of the leadership role was generous, with an emphasis on his supposed intellectual prowess and a sense that he was going to devote greater attention to values and community and the centrality of parliament.

In truth, the failure to reduce the embarrassingly high number of junior ministers and his decision to appoint his friends to the senior cabinet positions proved how essentially conservative he is.

COWEN’S bullying, sinister threats to get his backbenchers to prevent Fine Gael being heard in the Dáil were immature and revealed a problematic temperament and a blatant hypocrisy in light of his talk of the primacy of the Dáil.

He maintained that his first and foremost priority was a successful Lisbon campaign, and by his own stated ambition, he has messed up badly. Antagonising Fine Gael and Labour in the course of that campaign was both arrogant and foolish, but Cowen also failed to ignite his own party, despite promising there would be hell to pay if they did not make the requisite effort.

Presumably, he has learnt quickly that he will have to rethink his approach to all these issues, but in some respects things could be a lot worse for him.

The next general election, at this point anyway, seems a long way off. Recent opinion polls suggest there is no serious drop in support for Fianna Fáil and there is no sense at the moment that there is a hungry, coherent, alternative government in waiting.

Most appear to accept that there is no quick or easy solution to the Lisbon treaty dilemma, which will buy him some of the time and space he needs to recover his authority and convince that he is up to the task. Of course, Cowen has already paid the ultimate price for failing to sell the Lisbon treaty — having to kiss President Sarkozy in public. At least there was one thing to laugh about this summer.

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