John Drennan: Pragmatic triumph of wily Enda
His handling of Fine Gael's abortion rebels and Labour suggests the Taoiseach may be the most cunning of them all.
Published 05/05/2013 | 05:00
If anyone is puzzled by how Fine Gael's 'Dear Leader' Enda Kenny is in the Taoiseach's office – and these days quite a few are – the response by Kenny to the dangerous politics of abortion should provide some guidance.
As a Taoiseach, Mr Kenny has been, at best, timorous when it comes to economics (Enda, alas, is more of a 'gimme a high-five' man) or in charting a path through Europe's existential crisis, but when it comes to party management, truly Mr Kenny is, even more than Bertie, living up to his reputation as being "the most cunning, the cleverest of them all".
The Taoiseach's inner cabinet may have been cracking open the champagne – metaphorically, we stress – on Wednesday night in the Dail bar but for a time a sense of danger surrounded the response of the Government to this issue. Though the Fine Gael rebels have, for now, adopted the Slattery's Mounted Foot technique of warfare where, having come down the mountains suited and booted for war, they race back up once a shot is fired, the boisterousness of the Cabinet's celebrations indicated just how seriously the revolt of FG's gang of 20 was taken.
They will deny it now, but by Tuesday real potential existed for fissures between Fine Gael and Labour, and within Fine Gael itself.
The mood in both parties was not improved by the spectacle of that political bull in a medical shop, James Reilly, attempting to deal with a sensitive moral issue. The kindest thing one can say of Mr Reilly's political style is that had he been in charge of Bismarck's Prussia in 1870 we would have been spared two world wars on the grounds that Germany would never have been united.
The most serious problem on the Fine Gael-Labour front was that Mr Gilmore, in the wake of the apparent rout of his party on economic issues, has bet the house on Labour's embrace of the 'gay marriage is the civil rights issue of our generation' social agenda. He may normally be an accommodating sort, but, he could not afford to lose on this issue.
This, however, left Enda caught between the devil of an Invisible Man (Gilmore) and the deep blue sea of his own mutinous backbenches.
The gathering Fine Gael revolt had left the Taoiseach dangerously open to claims that he and his Cabinet had lost touch with the concerns of his own backbenchers.
Mr Kenny is normally, to put it mildly, a sanguine fellow, but the one thing that frightens him is that he will experience a Chappaquiddick-style nightmare where he finds himself drowning in a trapped car because of an absence of knowledge about what is going on in his party.
For all the smiles and outward charm, the Taoiseach knows that though he won the battle in 2010, the civil war between Richard Bruton's idealistic aristocrats and cautious conservatives like Enda, Michael Noonan and not so Cute Old Phil is not dead. Instead, this ongoing division between the 'follow my leader' backbench turnips and the radical conservatives of Fine Gael is the closest thing Ireland has to an ideological split.
This meant that while Enda was concerned about his surrendered Labour wife, the Taoiseach was far more exercised by the possibility that his control of his party might be as skin-deep as his political philosophy.
Mr Kenny's unease was accentuated by the moral nature of the issue.
Cute old Haughey-style pragmatists like Enda know that most problems can be bought off but a moral issue is as controllable as a forest fire.
In fact, rather like the
pulling of teeth, the anticipation that accompanied the legislation was worse than the reality as, 20 years after that X Case caused all this trouble, our democratic revolutionaries came up with an Irish solution to an Irish problem.
It was enough to ensure that by Thursday morning the Fine Gael backbenchers had been placated and a 20-year-old ghost had been put to bed.
The securing of this none too minor political achievement was helped by the manner in which everything, right down to the title of 'The Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill' bore a distinctive Fine Gael stamp, as Enda made it very clear "the law on abortion is not being changed".
Indeed, the more one looked at the legislation, the more Enda's radical demarche resembled the policy of the lads when it comes to the Troika: when our foreign masters visit, the Government ticks all the boxes titled 'reforms', waves goodbye to our visitors and things are then allowed to continue very much as usual.
The anxiety of the political class to exorcise the unquiet ghost of X, however, meant that Fine Gael's most cunning one received an easy passage.
Fianna Fail's uneasy position bore a remarkable similarity to its stance on the Seanad, where the party has opposed its abolition in the autumn but also suggested that the Soliders of Destiny might at some future time abolish it themselves.
Move over on that fence, Bertie; you've been replaced.
Sinn Fein has its own troubles while, whether wilfully or not, once again, like the economy, Mr Kenny's Coalition 'partners' didn't appear to recognise the abortion issue had been sorted Enda's way rather than Labour's way.
This meant it was left to Clare Daly to passionately summarise the reality with the observation that while she was "glad this legislation is before us ... what the Government has presented is the absolute minimum".
The grinning FG TDs were not at all inclined to protest over Daly's claim that "the clear intention is to make it so restrictive that most women who will be affected will not even bother and, instead, they will continue to make the journey to Britain so that the Government can continue to pretend that there is no Irish abortion".
The only moment of unease occurred when Daly
ANALYSIS, PAGE 23
asked Enda how had he managed to get "his Labour Party colleagues to settle for a solution that SIPTU, ICTU, USI, Unite, the National Women's Council," had opposed.
The answer was simple enough, for a fine new suit of clothes had been produced to cover the Labour emperor's nakedness. It was enough for a round of applause in the Labour Parliamentary Party meeting.
Nothing epitomised the Fine Gael nature of the solution more than the revelation that penal servitude under the 1861 Act has been replaced by 14-year jail terms for illegal abortions.
Hard labour may now be out, but it is still a pretty cold house for those who fall on the wrong side of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
Trouble, sadly, still lies ahead for our ever cautious Taoiseach. Quite a few TDs were keeping their powder dry last week.
There will still be casualties but on the plus side, it is expected no one too valuable, in the eyes of the 'Dear Leader' at least, will be lost.
The exiling of Peter Mathews carries the virtue of shorter parliamentary party meetings, Terence Flanagan is uncertain to be re-elected, James 'Bonkers' Bannon is himself, while Enda sees senators only as being something he has to abolish.
Despite all of the cheers, last week was a less than edifying affair. An opportunistic nod has been made to the memory of Savita, a deal has been done that will get no one into trouble.
The Government's grand new dispensation makes not a whit of difference but, as in so many other decisions by a Coalition whose strategic imperatives consist of 'careful now' and 'no harm done there, thank God', the appearance of action has occurred.
It represents, of course, an unsatisfactory solution for the pro and anti-abortion camps.
But, as we are learning, unsatisfactory solutions re the norm when it comes to this too-cautious administration.