Saturday 10 December 2016

White House visit could spell the end as leadership battle looms for Taoiseach

Cormac McQuinn and Kevin Doyle

Published 28/11/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taoiseach Enda Kenny Photo: Steve Humphreys

Taoiseach Enda Kenny will remain in office to attend the White House St Patrick's Day reception - but a leadership contest next summer is viewed as increasingly likely, senior Fine Gael sources have said.

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Mr Kenny last week raised the hackles of TDs who want to see a change at the top when he said he hopes to remain in office to welcome Pope Francis to Ireland in 2018.

That prospect has been described as "playing with fire" by one party insider.

The Taoiseach is in the Vatican today where he will tell Pope Francis the Government fully supports the invitation by the Irish Bishops to invite him to visit that summer.

However, the chances of Mr Kenny being in office at that stage are diminishing.

A White House meeting with US president-elect Donald Trump is increasingly being seen as the beginning of the end of Mr Kenny's term.

The Taoiseach has said he will step down as leader before the next general election but has refused to name a date.

Last summer he saw off a potential heave by backbenchers who feared that Fianna Fáil would pull the rug from under the Government while he remained in place.

None of the potential successors to Mr Kenny - Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald - backed the rebels and all said that Mr Kenny should be allowed to step down in his own time.

A senior party source said that following the aborted challenge, there was an "expectation that Enda Kenny would step down by Christmas".

The source added: "Now that has moved on to after St Patrick's Day. He is leveraging events like Brexit and Trump to strengthen his position but that can't go on forever. The reality is Enda has done well since the general election but we don't know when the next election will be and we can't have him as leader when it comes."

Another senior source said there was a sense that a leadership contest was most likely next summer as Fine Gael wouldn't change leader in the middle of a Dáil term.

The source also pointed out that Mr Kenny would surpass John A Costello as the longest-serving Fine Gael Taoiseach in April. Asked if there was any possibility Mr Kenny would remain as Taoiseach into 2018, the source replied: "I don't think there's many people that expect that to happen."

Meanwhile, a backbench source said there would be "a reluctance to sit on our hands for another year plus" in relation to a potential leadership challenge.

They said the party "would be really playing with fire" if it waited until 2018 to replace Mr Kenny, as the minority government deal with Fianna Fáil was up for review that year.

Last night, a spokesman for the Taoiseach declined to comment on the rumblings.

Mr Kenny addressed a gathering of Young Fine Gael on Saturday and appeared in relaxed form. He spoke to them of their duty to engage with people that hold different opinions and of the need to work hard to create the Ireland they want to achieve.

"Life is beautiful when you are prepared to live it fully, when you are prepared to work to leave a mark," he told them.

In a speech at the same event, Health Minister Simon Harris gave the strongest indication to date that he may contest the leadership insisting that youth is no reason to dismiss a person's abilities.

Irish Independent

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