Friday 28 July 2017

The questions we asked the Taoiseach

Philip Ryan describes how an ordinary press briefing turned into something much more significant for Enda Kenny

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: PA
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

It wasn't a particularly difficult question to answer. It was one Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been asked and answered many times before.

He knows Fine Gael's policy is to completely rule out the prospect of going into government with Sinn Fein at all costs. He was repeating this mantra on a near daily basis this time last year in the build up to the General Election.

But last Thursday at a media briefing, the Fine Gael leader decided to leave the door wide open to the possibility of forming a government some time in the future with Gerry Adams's party.

By the time he was finished talking, he had all but offered a vote transfer pact to Sinn Fein at the next election.

Maybe it was the olive branch Mary Lou McDonald extended to other parties by suggesting Sinn Fein should examine its policy of only going into government if it is the majority party. Or maybe this new politics lark has given the Taoiseach a new-found fondness for the political wing of the Provisional IRA.

Or could it have been Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty's decision to tell the Sunday Independent she would have no problem working in government alongside the "fabulous" members of Sinn Fein.

At around 2.45pm on Thursday, the Taoiseach was perched on a raised platform in room 308 of Government Buildings fielding questions from political journalists at what are now monthly briefings with the press.

Sarah Bardon, of the Irish Times, was the first to probe the Taoiseach on Ms McDonald's comments and his own intentions for stepping down as Fine Gael leader.

The Taoiseach wouldn't bite. He droned on about Brexit and the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail before insisting he "would not be diverted by extraneous matters".

You could say it was fair enough for him to duck the leadership question as he will diminish his authority further the more he entertains queries on his longevity in the job.

The Sinn Fein question was simple though. Fine Gael has a long-standing policy of ruling out doing business with Gerry Adams and his gang. Kenny decided not to say this.

But it didn't end there.

A few questions, and then later Independent News and Media's Political Editor Kevin Doyle returned to the Sinn Fein question. This time, the Taoiseach acknowledged he had seen Ms McDonald's comments and said he was "glad" Sinn Fein was beginning to realise you needed to be in government to get things done."I'm not going to make any further comment on that," he added.

The Taoiseach did not seem uncomfortable with the question and confirmed he was aware of the context to the issue but would not rule out the possibility of a Fine Gael/Sinn Fein coalition. Eventually, the Taoiseach's spokesman was kind enough to grant me a question. I pointed out that Mr Kenny seemed to be leaving the door open to working in government with Sinn Fein which would clearly be a huge shift in Fine Gael policy.

And, in comments reminiscent of Pat Rabbitte's infamous "isn't that what you tend to do during an election?" remarks, the Taoiseach nonchalantly responded: "I said wouldn't do business with Fianna Fail, you know so depending on the result you gave as a member of the electorate politicians have to work with the result."

He noted Sinn Fein "seem to have converted now to a position of changing their stance". But is Fine Gael also changing its position, I asked?

"I don't see Fine Gael doing business with Sinn Fein that's not going to arise under this administration in any event," he responded

And the next administration? "The next one is probably a much stronger result for Fine Gael I would think," he said. No one was left in any doubt that Mr Kenny had decided to depart from Fine Gael's long- running policy and opened the door to the possibility of governing alongside Sinn Fein.

Sunday Independent

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