independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

FG loyalists warn Kenny to shape up

Taoiseach faces backlash in wake of referendum debacle

Taoiseach Enda Kenny talks to the media at Dublin Castle after the decisive referendum result rejecting the proposal to abolish the Seanad

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny is battling to quell dissent in Fine Gael over his leadership in the wake of the humiliating defeat on the Seanad.

He has been warned that he risks losing control of the party if he fails to adapt his style and regain his common touch.

As the old doubts about Mr Kenny's leadership re-emerge, Fine Gael figures loyal to the Taoiseach are concerned growing dissatisfaction within the party will turn to outright rebellion. Senior party sources say he has to clearly show he has learned from his mistakes by changing his approach.

The unease over his handling of the rebels on the abortion issue has been exacerbated by what is seen as his failure to win the Seanad referendum.

Mr Kenny is being accused within the party of listening too closely to his advisors rather than to elected figures.

In a further headache for Mr Kenny, the Reform Alliance of rebel Fine Gael TDs declared it would be seeking the suspension of normal Dail business tomorrow to discuss the urgent need for Seanad reform.

Former junior minister Lucinda Creighton said the Government would abandon Seanad reform if there was not a "ruckus" in the Dail.

"It's up to the likes of the Reform Alliance to keep the pressure on," she said.

The Government is reeling from the humiliating referendum defeat, with 51.7pc of voters rejecting the proposals to abolish the Seanad that Mr Kenny personally backed.

The Taoiseach himself described it as a political "walloping".

Now he faces a stormy meeting with his own TDs and senators at Fine Gael's weekly parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday, when the disastrous result will be a major source of tension.

"We were pitched into a battle we weren't looking for," said one Fine Gael TD, mindful that another difficult Budget is now only a week away.

While the Yes campaign was successful in securing voter approval for a new Court of Appeal, the key matter at stake over the weekend was the future of the Seanad.

The Government defeat on that issue will be seen as a warning sign of voter dissatisfaction ahead of the local and European elections which could prove a significant challenge next May.

Several Fine Gael sources agreed that the biggest casualty of the Seanad referendum defeat was Mr Kenny's authority within his own party.

Some traced the root of the dissent to his stern treatment of rebels during the vote on abortion legislation. That alienated some supporters, and played into the hands of those who claimed the Seanad abolition was a power-grab.

A senior Fine Gael source said: "He is badly weakened in the party and it's 100pc self-inflicted. He was getting his own way on everything and booting people out of the party."

Mr Kenny's failure to engage in a televised debate was widely seen as a key factor in the last-minute swing to the No camp. Labour Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said he should have taken on the opposition live on TV.

Others in Fine Gael said Mr Kenny, as the lead proponent of Seanad abolition, had made a grave error in failing to make the case to an undecided and sometimes confused public.

One source said the referendum defeat would spur on the anti-Kenny rebels and stir up those who felt sore at missing out on junior ministries.

"He has p*ssed off all the Fine Gael senators, and he has Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney waiting in the wings," said a source.

Party members said the prospect of a heave against Mr Kenny was "out of the question", but even close allies said he was damaged by recent events, specifically the abortion legislation rebellion and the Seanad campaign.

"He could be in trouble. If you look at the polls, Fine Gael would be down nearly 30 seats. He'll have to tread carefully," said a Kenny loyalist.

Waterford TD and Fine Gael rebel John Deasy publicly blamed Mr Kenny's failure to debate the Seanad referendum for so many people deciding to vote "no".

"I think it was a huge mistake," he said. "I can understand why he didn't want a presidential-style debate with Micheal Martin, but he should have engaged with somebody like (RTE presenter) Bryan Dobson."

The No vote casts the future of the Seanad into chaos, with the Coalition split over what to do next, and on whether or not another referendum is needed.

Labour is open to holding another referendum on reforming the Seanad, but Fine Gael is likely to put the issue on the long finger until after the next general election.

Fine Gael has already suffered two referendum defeats since coming to power in 2011. It lost a vote on giving more powers of inquiry to Dail committees in late 2011, and has now suffered another reversal on Seanad abolition.

HONOURABLY

However, it has steered through Yes votes in the children's rights referendum, on the fiscal treaty, cutting judges' pay and setting up a new Court of Appeal.

Fine Gael junior finance minister Brian Hayes said Mr Kenny had acted honourably in keeping his general election promise to hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad.

The Taoiseach also got backing from Fine Gael Limerick TD Patrick O'Donovan, who said: "The three most important things for him are jobs, jobs, jobs,."

Fine Gael Galway East TD Paul Connaughton, whose constituency returned a narrow Yes majority, said the referendum result would not have any effect on Mr Kenny's leadership.

A spokesman for Mr Kenny said it was appropriate to take stock after the people's verdict in the referendum before the Government made any decision on Seanad reform.

By Michael Brennan,  Fionnan Sheahan and Conor Kane

Irish Independent

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