Public has fallen out of love with Enda and it’s been hard to swallow

HOW do you solve a problem like the public? That’s the dilemma for the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, as he faces into a seriously challenging political year.

Public has fallen out of love with Enda and it’s been hard to swallow

The good news for us is that he took a lengthy break at Christmas: there is nothing like relaxation to give someone the perspective to make sound decisions. On the basis of the past year, few people would accuse Mr Kenny of being ‘sound’ in his handling of certain issues.

But we don’t know what the Taoiseach has learned from 2014; whether he gained any insights or whether he intends to act upon them in managing the Government.

Did he go outside his narrow circle of mainly male advisers, some of whom are very conservative, and thrash things out with a few ‘wise heads’ whom he can trust, but who are outside the Government Buildings bubble?

It is not just insights that he needs. This is unchartered political territory, in terms of the disconnect between a Government doing what it said it would do — improve the economy — and voters, who, rather than feeling gratitude, want to give the politicians a kick up the backside.

There’s been many the twixt between cup and lip, which explains why the Government now fears a massacre, rather than a coronation, at the polls. Somehow, somewhere, people were pushed to the edge, and over it, in their anger and resentment, and it is going to be an incredibly hard, perhaps impossible, job to get them back in relative harmony with Fine Gael and Labour.

As I’ve written previously, the voters haven’t fallen out of love with politics, just with certain politicians and political parties, and they are far more partial to being wooed by independents, and by others, such as Sinn Fein or Lucinda Creighton’s new Reboot Ireland outfit.

The public’s relationship with the Government may not be meaningfully repaired between now and polling day. The logic is that the Taoiseach will want to push voting day out as far as possible, for the poll ratings to recover, but he will not be granted that luxury if there are further cock-ups.

One Government source, to whom I spoke this week, had an interesting analogy as to where things stood for the Coalition. He said you could compare it to a beach ball being pushed further and further underwater, but which eventually bounces back with force.

Conversely, though, it could also, he less enthusiastically explained, burst under the pressure.

That source said plainly that one of the main issues for the Government would be to stop “pissing people off” while deepening the economic recovery, and reminding people who steered them on that road and what that recovery means for each voter individually.

In Government circles, they look back now at the positive economic news that came out at the end of the summer, and how they went from publicly clapping themselves on the back to being criticised for demanding up to €600 a year in water charges from people.

If I remember correctly, Dublin Fine Gael TD, Olivia Mitchell, a wise political soul, described the difficulty of having to take money off people and telling them it was for their own good.

Watch out for more of an “emotional narrative” from ministers, or, as it was put to me in another way, they will be “emotionalising the economic message” in the coming months. They will be seen to be listening intently to whatever it is the public is telling them. A possible spring statement, which might include pledges on reforming property tax and capital investment, could help the cause.

The first, most obvious obstacle is the February deadline for registering with Irish Water and learning how many people have been persuaded by the new charging regime.

This will be the best measure of whether the ire has been drawn out of this particularly contentious issue.

In the medium term, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Taoiseach would be deposed between now and a general election, but so many of last year’s political events, and their shambolic handling, would not have been predicted by even the harshest of his critics. These events were allowed to run riot.

Many people in the Taoiseach’s own party, and many outside it, will be waiting with bated breath for the report from Mr Justice Nial Fennelly on the departure of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, which is due in April or May.

Mr Justice Fennelly was asked to examine the circumstances surrounding the retirement; this was part of his overall inquiry into the operation of a tape-recording system at Garda stations.

The Taoiseach was front and centre of that situation. If there were to be adverse findings, and if Mr Kenny was to find himself in a sticky situation, coupled perhaps with poor opinion poll showings, who knows what might happen?

But, in the meantime, don’t be surprised to see the Taoiseach popping up in otherunexpected scenarios, such as visiting a gay bar, or being out at night in Dublin meeting with the homeless and hearing their stories.

We woke this Monday morning to a co-ordinated effort, from the Taoiseach, and the Tanaiste Joan Burton, who wrote separate newspaper articles on the country’s prospects, in what was a deliberate tactic to kick off the new political year on a positive and competent note.

It was one of the opening salvos in the battle to change the national mood.

That sort of change can happen overnight if there is something like a European soccer chamionship and the team is doing well, or we’re excelling at the Olympics, but is so much harder to navigate when you’re trying to turn a sour moment into something special between you and a bunch of irrascible voters.

It must be with a certain sense of deja vu that Enda Kenny looks ahead to 2015 and the prospect of an uphill battle for a good result in the general election, or, even more pessimistically, the possibility of not leading his party into that general election.

For his entire leadership career —he’s been leader of Fine Gael since 2002 — it’s been an uphill battle. It’s quite a while ago since we sniggered at him when he said of Fine Gael that he was going to “electrify the party”. But, this time, it really does feel like he has a mountain to climb. The responsibility will lie with him to lead the charge.

It is very hard to tell whether he has what it is necessary to pull it off, not least the emotional dexterity.

The Taoiseach will want to push voting day out as far as possible, for the poll ratings to recover

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