The Fine Gael Ard Fheis took place over the weekend but there weren't a lot of promises...
If you were a stranger in Citywest on Saturday evening, you would find it hard to believe that Enda Kenny was the leader of a Government that holds the record majority in the history of the State.
With the expectation that the official start of the election campaign is just over a week away, the 3,000 party faithful were, not unreasonably, anticipating a rollicking oration to send them back to their constituencies with fire in their bellies.
Instead they got a performance that could not have been any flatter if it had been steamrollered prior to delivery. It was fumbling, hesitant, had mistimed cues for applause and almost certainly put the fear of God into those party strategists who break into a cold sweat at the thought of live TV debates.
You would also struggle to believe that he is overwhelming favourite to retain his role as Taoiseach. Maybe it was so flat because no previous Fine Gael leader has been as primed to overcome the hoodoo of failing to win successive terms as Taoiseach (Although it is somewhat bizarre that W.T. Cosgrave won four successive elections in the 1920’s as leader of Fine Gael’s predecessor Cumann na nGael yet this doesn’t seem to count).
Initially I thought it might have been complacency that was responsible for the clichéd rhetoric. That perhaps he and his colleagues were so cocksure of success that he only needed to go through the motions.
However on watching it again it was, I believe, more a consequence of the fear that envelops all politicians when the hustings beckon. But this was not just the fear of losing a seat. The stakes here are infinitely higher. This is about retaining power to direct the fortunes of this State for the next few years. It is about not squandering the hard yards put in since 2011. It is definitely about not letting a leader of some other party bask in the glory of a recovering economy.
To avoid electoral disaster, and for Fine Gael anything other than continuing to have the Taoiseach in their ranks would be a disaster, it appears that the decision was made to deliver a speech that was so devoid of controversy that it would soon be forgotten and therefore be irrelevant to the outcome of the campaign.
The handlers didn’t want or need their spokespersons chasing their tails for the next week trying to untangle the party from another “troops at ATM’s” fiasco. What we got was so short of anything of real substance that even the proverbial Paddy didn’t get a mention.
He did continually reference recovery and credited his party with making the hard decisions that has brought that recovery about.
Yes, there were some promises, although he barely stopped short of showing us the back of the envelope that they were written on.
At their most basic these promises consist of more of the same to continue to grow the economy. There will be 200,000 additional jobs by 2021 with 70,000 of these earmarked for returning emigrants. There will, over the same period, be an additional 10,000 nurses, Gardai, teachers, doctors and frontline staff.
Corporation tax will be retained at 12.5% while USC will be abolished over the five year period. This, it is claimed, will result in a maximum 44% tax rate for middle income families with a working family on €45k a year benefitting to the tune of an extra €1,750 annually.
There will be a new Working Family Payment aimed at making employment more attractive than living on welfare. He gave a nod to childcare requirements by saying that parents would get a second free pre-school year and two weeks paid paternity leave.
In essence the big 3-pronged Plan consists of:
We were told that this plan is fully costed but we were given absolutely no idea what the costs would be.
So how realistic is it?
The abolition of the USC, for example, will remove €4-5 billion from the State purse yet there is no hint as to how the funds to replace it will be raised. Perhaps the subliminal message was that it will come from the extra taxes generated by the additional jobs.
The 200,000 additional jobs promised by 2021 may sound good if you don’t linger long in assessing its value. However when you consider that some 35,000 young people seek to enter the workforce each year, that eats up 175,000 of those jobs. Yes there will be retirements at the other end of the age spectrum but these are less than previously with retirement age pushed out and the need for the older generation to continue to earn.
At best a net 125,000 of these promised jobs could be delivered and given that 70,000 of these are to entice home our diaspora from far flung fields the remaining 55,000 is a long way short of resolving the current unemployment figure of 200,000.
We have no idea how this Working Family Payment will be calculated or structured but it will cost money.
While he proclaimed that there would be no more Troika they will surely have more than a passing interest in the creation of 10,000 public sector jobs.
He tried to keep the speech so far under the radar that there was barely a swipe at Fianna Fail and only an oblique reference to Sinn Fein and the hard left. His partners in Government for the past five years, the Labour Party, only received a throwaway reference in the final moments of the address.
He finished up by evoking the spirit of the 1916 Rising, calling it a “cold and passionate dawn for a new Ireland”.
It was an unfortunate choice of reference as his speech was cold but certainly was not passionate.
A few more weeks of nights like this and the long cherished dream of successive Fine Gael administrations may not be as assured as many have believed.
It may well turn out that his best ally will be Michael Martin, who by effectively ruling out coalition with virtually every other party, will end up handing Enda Kenny the continued leadership of the nation on a plate.
Do not expect to see Enda Kenny on your screens or on the airways very often between now and Election Day otherwise the next government may turn out to be a very short lived.