Belfast Telegraph

Paterson's poll call was a vote winner in south

Owen Paterson handed Enda Kenny's coalition an early birthday present when he ruled out a border poll. Henry McDonald reports

Dublin's main arterial routes across the Liffey were gridlocked with traffic earlier this month.

However, there were no high-profile Gaelic football or hurling matches at Croke Park; the Irish rugby team were far away in Paris; there were no major soccer matches being staged at the Aviva Stadium.

The reason behind the traffic chaos was unemployment, or, to be more accurate, the lure of jobs abroad among a workforce facing a national jobless rate of 14.2%.

The thousands who flocked into Ballsbridge were there to attend a Jobs Expo at the RDS, in which companies from the United States, Canada, Australia, Saudia Arabia and Germany sought out Irish workers.

The lines of those queuing up to find a way out of Ireland and a better life overseas are perhaps the starkest evidence that the economy has not even begun to turn the corner out of recession.

As the Republic's coalition government marks one year in office, although there have been signs of growth in some areas of employment (such as Big Pharma), overall, the jobs picture remains bleak.

The Republic still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU, even while billions continue to pour into its near-bust banking system and spending on job-generating capital projects is cut back.

Few people south of the border, it has to be said, expected the government that took over from the Fianna Fail-led administration to turn the ship around in the space of a year.

The damage inflicted during the profligate years under Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, when the banks were allowed to lend so recklessly, has left deep wounds.

No wonder there were no cheering crowds outside Kildare Street, or at the back of Government Buildings. The public knew there would be a long, hard slog ahead.

In the face of the continuing eurozone crisis, the coalition has held its nerve. Defections or rebellions on the back benches have been few and far between.

In addition, the coalition has some achievements to its name, in spite of the Herculean challenges it faces. It managed to change the payback terms of the international bailout, with the Republic now paying less in interest than before.

The Government has not raised direct taxes, although it has failed to reform the south's general social welfare system. On the negative side, the coalition has been forced to introduce other taxes, like the household charge, which have proven deeply unpopular with middle-income voters.

Later this year, Enda Kenny, his deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore and the rest of the cabinet face their greatest test at the ballot box to date, when Ireland votes on whether or not to ratify the latest EU treaty.

A Yes vote for Kenny would give the coalition renewed authority as it seeks to further drive down the national debt through austerity measures and deeper public-sector cost-cutting.

A No vote would be a major blow to the government's prestige, as well as creating a new crisis within an EU already trying to control the eurozone storm.

Kenny also won praise, even in liberal sectors of society more inclined to vote Left, when he broke the historic mould and openly took on the Vatican.

His denunciation of the way the Holy See handled the clerical child-abuse scandal by cover-up was one of the high-points for him. It marked not only a break with the past, but seemed to chime perfectly with the way the 21st century felt about the changing politics of church and state.

Northern Ireland barely registered at all as an issue in the general election a year ago. Nor is it an issue on the agenda today. No one outside of Sinn Fein was rushing to denounce Owen Paterson last week after the Secretary of State ruled out a border poll.

Don't say it too loud in Dublin, but the political class in the south would have a collective seizure if any future poll indicated that their northern neighbours really wanted to be absorbed into the Republic.

The only poll exercising the minds of Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and all the other pro-European parties is the one on endorsing the EU's new set of rules in the referendum.

If they vote Yes and the Republic remains inside the Eurozone, this will have one profound implication for partition - it will merely solidify it further.

We will still have two currency regimes on this island, and with little possibility of lower corporation tax in Northern Ireland, very little likelihood of any economic fusion in the foreseeable future, either.

Yet it is the jobs question that will make or break the coalition, which thus far looks far more robust and united than previous such alliances.

Labour does face a challenge on its flank from both Sinn Fein and the hard Left, but there are no signs of panic yet within the ranks.

All that depends on whether the unemployment lines and the queues of people waiting for an exit out of the country start to thin out over the next two to three years.

Never mind the praise from fellow Europeans that, unlike their recalcitrant Greek cousins, the Irish remain the poster-child of the EU because the Republic adheres to austerity measures that provoke riots in Athens: it is primarily on the jobs front that the survival of the coalition depends.

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