Reilly revolt kicks off race to succeed Kenny
Taoiseach's authority fatally undermined after abortion referendum standoff with FG deputy leader
Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30
The Government, and Fine Gael in particular, are trying to create the impression that Enda Kenny has pulled a "masterstroke" on the abortion issue when, in fact, what has really happened here is that Mr Kenny's authority as leader has been fatally undermined.
Yes, the Taoiseach has made the best of the bad situation, into which he was manoeuvred, when he kicked the Repeal the Eighth Amendment proposal into a constitutional review. The outcome is bound to be another abortion referendum within two years.
But whether Mr Kenny will still be Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader by that time is now a moot point, which is, assuming Fine Gael wins the election and is actually in Government.
The Sunday Independent today reveals the dramatic details of how the Taoiseach was defied three times by Fine Gael's deputy leader, James Reilly, the first time anybody in the party has dared to do so.
Not only that, but Dr Reilly then received the support of at least two other Fine Gael ministers, Frances Fitzgerald and Paschal Donohoe.
When the Sunday Independent last weekend published Dr Reilly's view that a referendum to repeal the Eighth would have to be held, all hell broke loose in Fine Gael.
Behind the scenes, the Taoiseach's advisers made known their fury to the Minister for Children's advisers and Dr Reilly went into a pre-Cabinet meeting of Fine Gael ministers on Tuesday fully expecting to be rounded on by the Taoiseach. He was prepared.
An extraordinary stand-off then developed between the leader of Fine Gael and its deputy leader.
Pointing his finger at the Taoiseach, Dr Reilly is understood to have defiantly said, not once, not twice but three times: "I said it, I believe it and I'll say it again" in a robust defence of the view he had sought out this newspaper to express.
When other Fine Gael ministers on the liberal wing, notably Ms Fitzgerald and Mr Donohoe, sprang to Dr Reilly's defence, Mr Kenny effectively found himself backed into a corner wherein he was forced to contrive his 'free vote' compromise.
The political significance of this is that the Taoiseach has been significantly, some would say fatally undermined. In effect, the starting gun was sounded last week on the race to succeed him as Fine Gael leader. If he is re-elected Taoiseach, Mr Kenny will be not quite a lame-duck Taoiseach, but will carry nowhere near the authority he has assumed in his first term.
The truth is the sands of time began running on Mr Kenny's leadership from the moment his chief whip, Paul Kehoe, last summer suggested he would seek not just a second but also a third term as Taoiseach.
Such was the reaction that Mr Kenny was forced to issue a denial statement, and subsequent to that he has twisted and turned on the question of when, precisely, he will step down in his second term, again assuming he is re-elected.
The events of last week show that the Taoiseach is no longer the authoritative leader he once was.
Should he win the election, Mr Kenny's appointments to Cabinet will tell us a lot about his favoured successor but the corollary is that those excluded will immediately move to curry favour with his successors and begin the process of ending his leadership, perhaps earlier than Mr Kenny might himself choose.
In fact, the succession race is already under way, with three hats in the virtual ring: Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald. The question now, is, which side of the party will prevail, Christian Democrats or Social Democrats, and whether Fine Gael is about to tear itself apart all over again on the issue of abortion?