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24th Jul 2021

Weakened Irish PM faces delicate balancing act

  • Enda Kenny is relying on the help of his party's oldest foes, Fianna Fail (Photo: Council of European Union)

After a record 70 days with a caretaker cabinet following elections on 26 February, Enda Kenny was re-installed as prime minister of Ireland last Friday (6 May). But he leads a fragile minority government that few commentators expect to last more than two years.

Kenny is backed by 59 MPs from a parliament of 158, scraping past the minimum requirement for a minority government of 58.

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Any potential lawmaking achievements now hinge on a commitment from the main opposition party, centrist Fianna Fail – the greatest rival of Kenny's centre-right Fine Gael – that it will not vote against the government on matters relating to monetary legislation or votes of confidence in the prime minister.

A general election would be called if the government lost votes in either of these two areas.

If Fianna Fail, with 44 MPs, abstains on the key issues, that would leave 55 MPs from other opposition parties – just short of the number needed to trigger a collapse.

The situation is delicate and not helped by the fact that most of the cabinet, including Kenny himself, have been damaged both in confidence and stature by the drubbing they received from the electorate back in February.

Rural-urban divide

After its best ever performance in the 2011 election, this new arrangement sees Kenny lead with just 50 MPs from his own party, having lost 26 seats in February.

Fine Gael’s election slogan, “let’s keep the recovery going”, was a nod to the transformation that the Irish economy made during the government’s tenure.

In 2011, when the Fine Gael–Labour coalition took office, Ireland had just been bailed out by an EU-IMF programme worth €85 billion. By 2016, the Irish economy was the fastest growing in Europe and it had emerged successfully from the bailout.

On paper, this is a remarkable feat. At the time of February’s poll, unemployment had fallen to 8.6 percent – a seven-year low – compared with 14.3 percent when the coalition took over. Over its five years in power the coalition says it created 135,000 jobs.

But Fine Gael’s fatal mistake was its failure to acknowledge or address the huge disparity between growing urban prosperity, particularly in Dublin, and the dire state of rural areas with high unemployment and emigration.

Telling people to “keep the recovery going” in regions where there was no recovery made Fine Gael seem deeply out of touch with rural voters, and the party suffered at the polls. Most of its lost seats were in rural areas in the north-west and south. It lost just one seat overall in Dublin.

Distracted politicians

The challenges faced by Kenny's minority government are many.

Looming on the horizon is the return of the issue of water charges.

The last government introduced direct charging for water, replacing a system where the utility was funded through general taxation. The move caused street protests, the total collapse of the Labour vote in the last election and is still not resolved.

Meanwhile, left-wing parties will be putting pressure on to force a referendum on liberalising restrictive abortion laws. They want to repeal an article in the constitution that gives the life of the unborn foetus equal rights to that of the mother.

The 23 June referendum on EU membership in the UK also has potentially huge implications. Ireland’s bilateral trade with the UK is worth €62 billion a year, which would be affected if the UK votes to leave.

A British exit from the EU would also raise serious questions about political stability in Northern Ireland, particularly within the nationalist community.

Up to one in four people in Britain have some Irish heritage, and around 600,000 people living in Britain were born in Ireland. Campaigners for the UK to remain in the EU had hoped for active support from Irish politicians, but they have been otherwise distracted.

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