Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Lacklustre Kenny is Fianna Fail's biggest election asset

The two main opposition parties are 'the government-in-waiting'. Opinion polls would suggest, numerically, that in the event of an election in the near future they would be able to offer the country an alternative to Fianna Fail and the Greens and that the electorate would vote for that outcome. It was fear of this that caused Brian Cowen to do the much-condemned and recent subsidiary deal with the Greens, turning on their head previous commitments on the economy. The poll reinforced public respect for Fine Gael and Labour, giving Eamon Gilmore in particular a boost in his popularity.

Gilmore gives a robust account in the Dail chamber and is certainly a better opposition performer than Enda Kenny, who is rightly claimed by Fianna Fail as currently their biggest electoral asset. In performance terms this is right. In party terms Kenny may be credited with having revitalised Fine Gael, giving it consistently exceptional opinion poll ratings and putting the wind up the largest party whose leader, Brian Cowen, is perpetually accident-prone in his judgement, inspiring less than confidence on all main issues. Kenny also has a huge asset in Richard Bruton, a convincing Cassandra who tells us what is wrong, how the economy and public life should be handled, but whose views are not acted upon.

Individual politicians in both opposition parties offer talent and energy that are impressive; they are convincingly -- indeed, exclusively -- committed to the public interest in marked contrast with the main party in power, which operates constantly under suspicion of following an agenda limited in its value to the party and the party faithful.

Despite this, however, there are real doubts about the future, and there is perplexity over one fundamental principle of democracy, enunciated by Ivor Jennings in his seminal book, 'Parliament', when he said "opposition is alternative government" and that the leader of the opposition is the Taoiseach-in-waiting.

We try to fit the present opposition into an approximation of this simple formula; yet it doesn't work and we need to know why. To begin with, there is not one opposition but two, with a third small party adding to the confusion.

Fine Gael and Labour do not offer themselves as having clear common objectives except for the negative one of getting rid of Fianna Fail. They do not have consensus over the leader of the opposition.

Few politicians on the opposition benches are enthusiastic about giving this role to Enda Kenny, and, despite his opinion poll status, the idea of Eamon Gilmore transforming a robust and aggressive performance from the Labour benches in the Dail into overall leadership of a united opposition fighting for power in an election is not a convincing concept.

Part of the deficit is the suspicion that, despite declarations to the contrary, Labour could end up joining with Fianna Fail -- not for the first time -- and take us through a re-run of the Spring-Reynolds fiasco of the early 1990s. The Fianna Fail Party was pretty toxic then; it is worse now.

Labour instability over intentions is in part a product of Fianna Fail losing -- forever, one hopes -- the capacity to gain power on its own, and therefore needing a coalition partner.

As a result of this, Fianna Fail destroyed Labour for a time, destroyed the Progressive Democrats, destroyed the Greens, and is looking round for whom it may devour in the future. Eamon Gilmore could be the next victim.

Part also of the trouble is the failure of the two opposition parties to reach the kind of partnership arrangement that preceded the Liam Cosgrave-led Fine Gael-Labour government that lasted a full term, 1973-77, and the Garret FitzGerald-led government that was in power, with reasonable success, between 1982 and 1987.

In both cases the opposition had a leader who transcended party leadership and was acknowledged as having national status. Cosgrave derived his from the dynastic reality of being the son of the State's first leader of a government that lasted through a decade in the 1920s. FitzGerald, also possessing dynastic authority, was in his own right a political figure of capacity and stature.

We have nothing comparable today. No natural figure stands head and shoulders above the combined parties. The nearest we come to it is in the intellectual superiority of Richard Bruton, whose analysis is outstanding, but whose strength of purpose is deliberately and honourably deferential to a leader, Enda Kenny, who is his inferior in knowledge, wisdom and judgement.

Was there ever such a strangely self-defeating form of political delicacy and politeness? The public goes on and on being less than enthralled by this, the most attractive of alternative options, but clearly one that is not creating the waves of public confidence that the circumstances require. There is this sense of expectation engendered by a paradox that seems unsolvable. It is worthy of a Jane Austen novel. It is not suitable to a country spinning out of economic control and lacking logic about where it is going.

Indeed, we face the additional and burdensome reality of two disjointed and not entirely convincing leaders of parties that do not show a realistic response to the national dismay about the low-grade direction of present government policy on virtually all issues.

There is here a democratic deficit that is bewildering. The opposition disgraced itself by siding with the Government over the two Lisbon Treaty referendums and abandoning its respect for the public. It found nothing wrong with the biased approach of the Referendum Commission, the lies and misrepresentations of 'Yes' vote advantages. Collectively, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour lost 900,000 voters. Where is democracy in that?

I am well known for this view about the opposition's failure over the Lisbon Treaty referendums. I am also well known for my criticisms of Enda Kenny over a number of years. The trouble with Enda Kenny is that such doubts as I have about his political potential in a general election are now increasingly being voiced by members of his own party, and with increasing impatience that the change of leadership is the elephant in the drawing room that the party hierarchy ignores. This has to change.