The deep, deep trouble Fine Gael are in is highlighted by the close election of Enda Kenny, says Jerome Reilly.
THE absence of rancour as Enda Kenny was plucked from obscurity to be elected as possibly the last leader of Fine Gael, had much to do with relief among the dwindling band that were not among those culled in the massacre of May 17.
The party remains in deep trauma. In that context, it is hardly surprising that there was little stomach for settling old scores among the TDs and senators left behind. Of course, bitterness and anger remain but the one commodity Fine Gael has in abundance is time for navel-gazing.
Now after its years of internal division and lack of direction, the party has just 31 TDs. Alan Duke's Tallaght Strategy did the country proud but undermined the foundations of the party and the desperation in the party ranks, at this new low point, suggests there is some hope for a new consensus to emerge.
But so far there is little evidence of unity of purpose. Enda Kenny was chosen for no better reason than he was the prettiest of the available candidates. It is felt, rightly or wrongly, by a significant number within the party hierarchy that he has some small potential to be liked by the electorate as a personality the basic deficiency of the last three leaders, Dukes, Bruton and Noonan.
But even in electing their new leader last Wednesday there was no clear agreement within the Fine Gael Parliamentary party. They were not united in deciding that the only way to beat FF is to win a beauty contest based on a premise that after 10 years as Taoiseach the electorate may at last begin to tire of Bertie Ahern.
According to figures obtained by the Sunday Independent the "secret" ballot to elect a successor to Michael Noonan showed that Enda Kenny can rely on the absolutely unconditional support of only about one third of the parliamentary party.
Richard Bruton came closer than expected to winning. With so few TDs in the Dail it should have been easier to gain some semblance of agreement on the new leader.
As the party looks forward to five years in the desolation of the opposition benches praying for some catastrophic cock up in the new Government it should be a time for reflection. It is argued by sources within the party that Kenny's shy, rather diffident West of Ireland manner may act as a foil to the phenomenon of Bertie.
However, the truth remains that most of the established front-runners for leadership were victims in last month's electoral bloodbath.
Jim Mitchell, Alan Dukes, Nora Owen, Charlie Flanagan, Brian Hayes, Michael Creed, Alan Shatter, Paul Bradford, Gerry Reynolds and Frances Fitzgerald lost seats while Jim Higgins, who was a far superior parliamentary performer in the last Dail than Enda Kenny, lost out in Mayo to the party's new leader.
Once John Bruton had toyed with, and then dismissed, the idea of a big comeback that left four candidates of some standing Kenny, Richard Bruton, Phil Hogan and Gay Mitchell.
Gay Mitchell, possibly the best all-round politician of the four with the added crucial quality of tremendous stamina that is a pre-requisite for high political office, is in the mould of the late John Boland. He is simply too spiky to be liked even within his own party hierarchy.
That was reflected in the first count results where it is understood that Enda Kenny won 17 first preference votes, one ahead of Richard Bruton on 16 votes with Phil Hogan on nine votes and Gay Mitchell on seven.
Gay Mitchell was eliminated having failed to secure the dozen or so votes he felt he needed to have a chance in the final shake-up. There were some surprises in the distribution of Mitchell's votes. Surprisingly three of them went to Enda Kenny and three to Richard Bruton and a single transfer to Phil Hogan who had travelled more than 1,000 miles last weekend in a desperate bid to boost his personal support.
That left the candidates as follows: Enda Kenny (20), Richard Bruton (19) and Phil Hogan (10).
With just a single vote between Kenny and Bruton it was still all to play for, though the Bruton camp felt that he had to be well ahead at this stage to ensure victory. They were right. Kenny received nine of the 10 Hogan transfers with just a single vote transferred to Bruton.
16 months after he famously said during his failed attempt to beat Michael Noonan that he would electrify the party, Enda Kenny is now in charge of Fine Gael.
After he lost the leadership fight with Noonan, Kenny lay low concentrating first and foremost on retaining his seat in one of the most competitive constituencies in the country. There are those who argue that if he hadn't been shafted by Michael Noonan in a fit of pique, Enda Kenny would no longer by a dail deputy.
He takes over a party in deep, deep trouble. They lost Alan Dukes as a result of sheer panic based on opinion polls which were thought at the time as unfavourable. The same results now in the party's current situation would be considered excellent. The election of John Bruton did steady the ship but it also created bitter divisions within the party mainly because of the ruthless axing of Dukes and his supporters in the parliamentary party and Bruton's presidential style.
That split never healed with both Jim Mitchell and Michael Noonan harbouring personal ambitions. Bruton was challenged even before the premature fall of Albert Reynolds led to the demise of the FF/Labour Government. While Bruton was Taoiseach his enemies bided their time.
They got their way 16 months ago, just under three and half years after Bertie Ahern had been elected Taoiseach. Noonan was the chosen replacement probably more than five years after he had reached the zenith of his personal popularity with the national electorate.
His leadership was an unmitigated disaster for the party. He failed to grip the imagination of the voting public while the party itself , despite five years to prepare for a general election, ran a lacklustre and disorganised campaign. The only real policy to emerge and be easily recalled a month after the election was the laughable plan to compensate Eircom shareholders.
The omens are not good so far. It was ill-advised to rush the appointment of the new leader thus alienating the grass roots of the party who remain wounded and feel disenfranchised. Having the actual election on the day that Ireland played Germany was unfathomable.
On the night before the election in the Gresham Hotel Colm MacEochaidh who ran unsuccessfully in Dublin South East constituency chaired what was effectively a protest of party grass roots who felt they were being snubbed and left out in the cold.
In September the party will hold an Ard Fheis. That gives Enda Kenny about three months to consolidate his position, though it already looks like he will be the man who is there for the long haul.
That Ard Fheis may yet prove crucial in the future of Fine Gael. Where do they go from here? There are already clues about where Kenny will take the party. Olwyn Enright who seconded Kenny's nomination was far more prominent than expected during the leadership contest.
Others like John Deasy, Simon Coveney, Paul Kehoe and Damien English represent young blood who can expect extra responsibilities. Denis Naughten, perhaps wisely decided against running for the leadership, though he was pressed by Maurice Manning who was hoping for an inter-generational choice.
Naughten's withdrawal from the leadership race helped Enda Kenny secure victory as the West of Ireland ranks rowed in behind the Mayoman. Of Fine Gael's old guard, John Bruton and the three beaten leadership candidates will still have a significant role in trying to find a new direction for Fine Gael. Kenny admitted to Mark Little on Prime Time last week "I've been leader for just one day."
That anaemic statement of intent brings to mind the words of the Liverpool poet Roger McGough, who put it most succinctly in his poem The Leader:
I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Yippee, I'm the leader
I'm the leader
OK What shall we do?