Monday 26 September 2016

To lead or to leave? What does the future hold for the big four?

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny. Photo: David Conachy
Enda Kenny. Photo: David Conachy
Joan Burton. Photo: David Conachy
Michael Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Gerry Adams

There is a certain amount taken for granted ahead of the forthcoming General Election.

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Most people accept Taoiseach Enda Kenny will return Fine Gael as the largest party in the country, while Tanaiste Joan Burton will guide the Labour Party through rough waters and most likely see a significant drop in seat numbers. Fianna Fail will return with more seats than it currently holds under the leadership of Micheal Martin, and Sinn Féin will also make gains with Gerry Adams at the helm of the party. But what happens after the votes are counted and the next government is formed is more interesting. Who are voters really voting for to lead their party of choice over the next five years, if the next government even lasts that long? Questions are hanging over the futures of each of the 'big four' party leaders as we get closer to election day. Some are in more precarious positions that others and much will be decided by how their respective parties perform once the votes are counted. But it is not unrealistic to suggest that all four may decide - or be forced - to step aside and allow a successor to take the reins in the coming years.

Enda Kenny

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny has insisted that the next Dail term will be his last as leader of Fine Gael. But Kenny has been less clear on when his leadership of the party, now in its 14th year, will come to an end. If he does not intend to lead his party into the election after next, he will have to give his successor time to take charge and state his or her personal vision for Fine Gael.

There is an expectation, mostly among those who wish to succeed him, that Kenny will step aside two or three years into the next Dail term if re-elected to government.

Successive opinion polls have told us health minister Leo Varadkar is the clear favourite to take over. Varadkar has made a habit of upstaging his boss over the last five years - most notably around the Garda scandals and the recent GSOC controversy. The minister has so far managed to avoid too much reputational damage during his short tenure in health but he is unlikely to come out unscathed if he returns to the role after the election.

Varadkar's succession is far from a done deal and he will face tough competition from agriculture minister Simon Coveney, who is far less inspiring than the health minister but is admired by the Fine Gael membership as a team player who sticks to the party line. Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is also touted as a future leader but her standing in the party has declined on the back of a series of justice crises.

Joan Burton

TANAISTE Joan Burton is faced with an unenviable task going into the General Election.

The Labour Party will somewhat unfairly be the Coalition's sacrificial lamb and the electorate's whipping boy when the country goes to the polls.

Burton, not even two years into the top job, may lead a depleted Labour Party back into Government but the number of seats she returns with will determine her future.

On an extremely good day, the Labour Party will hope for 15 seats, which will guarantee it around five Cabinet positions if Fine Gael also polls well.

Anything less than this - and according to most opinion polls it is likely to be less - will heap pressure on Burton.

Environment minister Alan Kelly has made no secret of his ambition to take over from the current leader should an opportunity arise.

Kelly's relationship with Burton is at best terse and at worst toxic and the Tipperary TD will be first out of the blocks to lead a heave if the Tanaiste falters after the General Election.

Kelly taking over from Burton is far from an open and shut case and the next Labour leadership race is likely to be a crowded field.

Ministers Brendan Howlin, Ged Nash and Alex White will also be seen as strong candidates for the role if they can return their seats.

Micheal Martin

IT is hard to argue against suggestions that Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin was among the strongest contributors to debates during the 31st Dail.

Martin was not the first to raise concerns about the Government stripping medical cards from the disabled, allegations of misconduct in An Garda Siochana or the various Nama controversies.

But when he weighed into the debates, he added a certain credence which forced the Coalition into action.

However, his impressive public persona is tainted by poor political judgement and autocratic leadership, which has alienated key party members.

Should Martin fail to deliver at least 35 seats after the election, or indeed refuse to enter coalition talks with Fine Gael, he is likely to face a heave in the not-so-distant future.

Fianna Fail TDs - most notably John McGuinness and Eamon O Cuiv - are regularly at odds with their leader and both have ambitions to take charge of the party.

As it stands, neither would have strong support among the outgoing crop of TDs but an enlarged Fianna Fail party could pose problems for Martin as many of the new candidates are not necessarily as loyal to the leader as he would like to believe.

In fact, McGuinness is understood to be actively courting new Fianna Fail candidates likely to be elected later this month in the expectation that the party leader's days in charge may be numbered.

Gerry Adams

Gerry Adams's 32-year tenure as leader of Sinn Fein is a feat that would make most dictators in third-world countries blush.

Nonetheless, Adams, who will celebrate his 68th birthday later this year, has maintained an iron grip on the party his rivals describe as a "cult-like organisation".

But, as his deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said of Adams just after Christmas: "nobody goes on forever".

The longer Adams does stay around, the longer it will take for Sinn Fein to win over voters in Middle Ireland, where defending tax cheats like Thomas 'Slab' Murphy and allegations of child sex abuse cover-ups do not go down well.

Mary Lou McDonald, the privately schooled south County Dublin girl turned republican, is obviously best placed to succeed Adams and has received her party leader's blessing in the past. But there are doubts over how she will win over the Belfast membership or indeed the South Armagh brigade when the time eventually comes to vote for a new leader. The party may favour a compromise candidate, such as their justice spokesman Pardraig Mac Lochlainn, whose family's tradition is steeped in the republicanism of the Troubles.

Adams will lead Sinn Fein into the General Election but all eyes will then be on the party's ard fheis, scheduled for later this year, where the annual leadership vote will take place.

Sunday Independent

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