by Frank Schnittger
Fri May 19th, 2017 at 03:54:56 PM EST
Simon Coveney and Leo Varadker, chief rivals to replace Enda Kenny.
Enda Kenny has finally resigned as leader of Fine Gael some months after it became clear his days in office were numbered following Fine Gael's disastrous performance in the 2016 General Election. Leo Varadkar has become the early favourite to succeed him as Leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach or Prime Minister of Ireland.
Enda Kenny leaves office not without some considerable achievements to his credit: Irish unemployment has declined from 15% in 2012 to 6% now, Ireland's debt to GDP ratio has declined from 120% to 75% and growth is averaging about 5% p.a. when one excludes the distorting factor of Global corporates like Apple moving their assets around to avoid tax or other risk factors.
In addition, the referendum on Marriage equality was passed under his watch, His government legislated for at least some rights to abortion in restricted circumstances and he has been forthright in condemning the Vatican for its complicity in covering up child abuse in Ireland.
In Contrast, Leo Varadker, and his chief rival, Simon Coveney, do not have a distinguished record of achievement as Cabinet Ministers to their name. Leo Varadker is currently Minister for Social Protection where his principle initiative has been to launch a controversial anti-fraud initiative. His previous stint as Minister for Health - a traditional graveyard for political careers referred to colloquially as "Angola" because of endemic waiting lists, poor management structures, and rising costs was also hardly an unequivocal success.
Simon Coveney had a relatively uncontroversial stint as Agriculture Minister and is now embroiled, as Housing minister, in the endemic problem of high house price inflation, rapidly rising rents, insufficient new housing construction, inadequate social housing provision and increased homelessness. As the relatively privileged son of a wealthy Cork business family, he may find it difficult to shake of a "merchant prince" moniker which generally doesn't go down well in Irish politics.
Coveney recently said he was "uncomfortable" with proposals emanating from a Citizen's Assembly to liberalise Ireland's very restrictive abortion laws - perhaps in an effort to consolidate his support in Fine Gael's more socially conservative rural wing.
Leo Varadker is the son of an Indian doctor and Waterford mother who was raised as a Catholic, went to a protestant boarding school, qualified as a doctor, and came out as gay some years ago to general acclaim for his political courage in doing so. He is generally regarded as shy, articulate and intelligent, but doesn't have many accomplishments to show for it.
He does have an eye for populist causes, however, and is not slow to comment on matters outside his brief: he recently proposed that Northern Ireland should remain within the single market in order to avoid the erection of a hard border within the island.
The new Fine Gael Leader will have two major challenges facing him in the coming years. Firstly, how to keep the Government running despite having only 50 out of 158 seats in the Dail and dependent on abstention by Fianna Fail and a scattering of support from independents to remain in office. Second, to address the challenges posed by Brexit, both for peace in Northern Ireland, and for the Irish economy when so much of our trade is with, and routed through, the UK.
Fine Gael is the most conservative of Ireland's major political parties, committed to liberal democratic market led economic policies and aligned to the European People's Party and Christian Democrats more generally. However it is also generally less nationalist than Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein and very pro-European in its general outlook.
Leo Varadker is generally seen as belonging to the party's more conservative wing, particularly on economic policies, and it is unlikely he will stray too far from the current policy of attracting mostly US FDI as a means of developing the economy and state revenue base. A liberal on social issues, he is more likely than Coveney to continue the process of distancing the Irish state from Catholic church control of schools and hospitals.
Fianna Fail will be nervous that the emergence of a younger, articulate, relatively popular, and telegenic leader could pose a risk to its chances of re-emerging as the largest political party after the next general election. They will be anxious to embarrass him at every opportunity and nervous that a new leader might try to call a snap general election before his honeymoon period expires.
However there is no evidence that an early general election would necessarily change the relative strengths of Irish political parties all that much, and every likelihood that the formation of a new government after such an election outcome would be as painfully drawn out as last time around. Ireland came very close to joining the list of European countries finding great difficulty in forming a stable government, and the new Fine Gael leader will be wary of being accused of destroying what has been a relatively stable governmental arrangement so far.
So the most probable outcome will be that the new Fine Gael Leader and Taoiseach will prioritise staying in office even in the current rather attenuated form, where major initiatives have to be run past Fianna Fail for approval first. So long as the economy keeps growing, the lack of major legislative proposals enabled by this arrangement may not prove to be fatal to its continuance. However all bets are off if a breakdown in Brexit negotiations leads to a major political and economic crisis on the island, or if Trump stops the flow of FDI from the USA.
The debate on how Ireland can survive and prosper in a post Trump and hard Brexit world has not even begun in earnest, and will be the true test of however emerges as the next Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach. With Brexit, Ireland will be losing a key ally within the EU, and the centre of gravity of the bloc will be moving further east. Northern Ireland could be de-stabilised and EU proposals for a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB) represent a mortal threat to Ireland's low corporate tax model of attracting FDI.
Irish political culture tends to promote fixers rather than visionaries, doers rather than intellectuals. It remains to be seen whether either of the main candidates for the job have any of these qualities in sufficient measure. Ireland's prolonged honeymoon period in the EU may soon be over.