Enda Kenny can resolve Stormont’s budget impasse

Posted By: June 13, 2015

Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). June 13, 2015 

Only one person can resolve the budget impasse in Belfast. That person is Enda Kenny, who is Taoiseach in Dublin. Mr Kenny’s influence stems from his power to decide the date of the next general election in the south. 

Only when counting in that election starts, will serious negotiations likely begin to address Stormont’s budget. (Political science students might like to note this as one of the few examples where political outcomes in one state are dependent on an election in another.)

The situation arises because Sinn Féin’s performance in northern government will influence its chances of entering government in the south.

So when will Mr Kenny hold the election? What is its likely result, particularly for Sinn Féin, and how will that outcome affect the fantasy administration in Stormont?

The election must be held by April 3 next year. Since an Irish winter is a long time in politics, there are many reasons to hold it early. These include consistently good ratings for Fine Gael in opinion polls (which may mean something or nothing), recent agreement on public sector pay and Ireland now having the fastest growing EU economy.

However, independents are still the second largest political grouping in opinion polls, largely due to allegations of political cronyism and a lack of transparency in the political establishment’s financial dealings.

(The sometimes unusual nature of Irish finance now includes FIFA’s funding of the Football Association of Ireland for a referee’s mistake. If the GAA ever agrees to pay compensation for poor refereeing, the International Monetary Fund will not have sufficient reserves to cover it.)

Mr Kenny recently faced allegations that the state-owned Irish Bank Resolution Corporation had charged an interest rate of 1.25 per cent to some businesses, when it should have charged 7.5 per cent. 

It took independent TD, Catherine Murphy, four months to get answers from the government on the matter. (Stormont is different. Jim Allister has been waiting unsuccessfully nine months for information regarding the National Asset Management Agency’s sale of its Northern Ireland loan portfolio to an investment firm.) 

The Taoiseach finally responded to Ms Murphy by establishing a commission of investigation. He might wisely go to the polls before its findings are published, possibly by the end of the year. (Bad news for Jim Allister: Stormont doesn’t do commissions of investigation.)

Among the opposition parties, Sinn Féin has performed well in opinion polls. However, the election is likely to be determined by events closer to polling day. 

SF has so far survived a series of allegations, including covering up sexual and paramilitary violence. Although scandal has a short shelf life in Irish politics, fresh allegations just before polling day would be unhelpful. The party could also be exposed in policy terms by events in Greece.

Having voted for the bank bail-out and then argued, Greek-style, against re-paying the bond-holders, Sinn Féin’s economic credibility is linked to the unpredictable fortunes of the Greek government. (That’s a reverse example for students of how events in one state can influence an election result in another.)

Southern economic recovery will make it difficult for SF to sell its Greek-style anti-austerity message. The party will certainly take a huge slice of Labour’s vote, but to achieve a share of government, SF must also capture significant Fianna Fáil support. That will be difficult.

Although FF has rarely exceeded 20 per cent support in opinion polls, it won a credible 28 per cent of first preferences in a recent by-election. As the sleeping giant of Irish politics, it will attack SF on its northern government performance. (FF might like to recruit Jim Allister as an electoral consultant.) 

Party leader, Micheal Martin, concentrated much of this year’sArd Fheis speech criticising SF’s republican credibility – and that is another reason why Enda Kenny might go to the country before next spring. 

April 3 is the Sunday after Easter. The Taoiseach will not want to fuse an election campaign with the 1916 centenary commemorations, particularly with FF and SF fighting for the world rights to be called The Republican Party. (Following recent royal visits, de Valera’s party is ahead on points.)

SF has placed Stormont in deep freeze to minimise electoral risk in The South. However, as the southern economy improves and the north descends into economic fantasy-land, the move could backfire.

If Kenny opts for a spring election, that risk grows by the day (although a SF U-turn is always possible). Alternatively, if he calls an autumn election, SF could collapse Stormont to force an all-Ireland common polling day, a year ahead of 1916.

There is a lot riding on the Taoiseach’s decision.