'Kenny is losing it,' warn ministers - as Taoiseach isolated over Sinn Féin gaffe nobody understands
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been left isolated by his senior Cabinet members in an unprecedented backlash over his decision to open up the possibility of a future coalition with Sinn Féin.
As Fine Gael TDs tried to establish whether Mr Kenny had landed an old-school gaffe or actually intended to change the long-standing party stance on Gerry Adams, his own officials were also scrambling to come up with a plausible explanation.
Ultimately, TDs were briefed to argue that Sinn Féin's sudden willingness to be a junior partner in a coalition was the result of watching Fine Gael's hard-working minority Government.
Apparently, they had a Pauline conversion and realised there's a "glass ceiling on carping from the sidelines".
Strikingly, not a single Fine Gael representative used the newly conceived 'party line', instead opting to vocally reject Sinn Féin's history, economic policies and populist politics.
"I don't think the two parties are compatible partners that could work together in government, there are too many fundamental differences," leadership contender Simon Coveney told the Irish Independent.
Health Minister Simon Harris said: "Our parties are not in any way compatible in government. I'm not in favour of coalition with Sinn Féin."
Charlie Flanagan ruled the idea as being totally out of order, citing the "litany of chequebook proposals" that Sinn Féin bring into the Dáil every week. The Foreign Affairs Minister said that he respected the work Sinn Féin did in Northern Ireland and is happy to work with them as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
But he added: "I see an incompatibility between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael which ensures there cannot be a relationship in government between the parties. Sinn Féin stands for a 32-county democratic social people's republic. Its policies are so far removed from Fine Gael they would cripple the country and undo much of the hard work of recent years."
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar said a coalition with Sinn Féin "wouldn't be possible".
The closest anybody came to defending 'the boss' was Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald who said politicians "have to work with the results".
Yet even she added a "however", saying "there are very significant gaps between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin in terms of policy and ethos, and I find it difficult to see how that gap could be bridged".
Several other ministers said the controversy brought Mr Kenny's judgment into question, with two stating "he's losing it".
"This is all leading somewhere and it's not good," said one junior minister.
Of course, Mr Kenny is accustomed to getting flak over the years - but what will have struck him on this occasion are the names of the people emerging from backbenches. It wasn't the usual suspects running to the airwaves to distance themselves from the boss. Peter Burke and Colm Brophy, who were first out of the traps, would be considered as 'moderates' by the leadership.
As one anti-Kenny rebel put it: "I'm not going to say anything today. When you have those sort of people out making the point, it's better that we stay quiet and not overshadow them."
Sources noted that this isn't just about the parliamentary party either, there is no appetite for cosying up to Sinn Féin at any level.
"The membership is very, very angry that he has brought this up. It sounds like we'd almost do a deal with anyone to stay in power," a source said.
One TD, who wanted to believe that the Taoiseach was taken out of context, asked for audio of the Thursday afternoon exchange with journalists. But after listening, he replied with an angry 'emoji' face.
"I said I wouldn't do business with Fianna Fáil so, depending on the result you gave as a member of electorate, politicians have to work with the result," the Taoiseach said.
It was a far cry from the "they're not fit for government" chorus during last year's election.
In the normal course of politics, you might expect the Leinster House 'newbies' to be the most open-minded about the idea of Tánaiste Mary Lou McDonald.
But they were among the most vocal opponents of the latest kite-flying from Government Buildings.
"I think it's unreasonable to expect Fine Gael to validate Sinn Féin as a reliable partner in any government," said Dublin Bay South TD Kate O'Connell.
Perhaps, more pointedly, she added: "By his own admission, Kenny has said he won't lead Fine Gael into the next election so really a partnership - with anyone - isn't really his call."
Noel Rock, who proposed Mr Kenny for Taoiseach in the Dáil three times last year, was even more blunt: "If Gerry Adams is in, I'm out."
And Dublin Fingal TD Alan Farrell said the whole debate created by the Taoiseach was "nonsensical and concerning".
"I would say that the likelihood of them making it into government would be at the discretion of others in the opposition benches, specifically, Fianna Fáil, should the prospect arise."
A senior Fianna Fáil strategist laughed off the idea, saying that unlike Fine Gael their position "is absolutely clear in terms of Sinn Féin".
This won't topple Mr Kenny but it has put his leadership back on the table. His loyalists are scarpering and his enemies will be watching opinion polls very closely.