Tuesday 27 September 2016

How Fine Gael rebels want Enda 'gone by Christmas' - but he has other ideas

Published 12/09/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Government Buildings in Dublin following his talks last week with President of the European Council Donald Tusk. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Government Buildings in Dublin following his talks last week with President of the European Council Donald Tusk. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The Fine Gael rebels would like to award their leader a 'GBC'. No, it's not some kind of obscure order of merit - quite the opposite, in fact. They want him 'gone by Christmas'.

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But the Taoiseach has no intention of stepping down. Today, on the edge of the Curragh of Kildare, Fine Gael TDs, senators and MEPs gather for their pre-Dáil think-in. Last time they did this, they were far more numerous and full of expectations of future political success.

When they gathered in Adare 12 months ago, there were even private mutterings of going close to an overall majority. There was a deep-seated belief that, though the public did not love the Government which dished out the austerity medicine, voters would reluctantly acknowledge economic recovery and decide to return them.

Today, Fine Gael will be in post-mortem mode, reviewing an election which saw them drop one third of their representation in a ham-fisted campaign last February which never got out of the traps.

Even staunch Kenny supporters acknowledge he had a poor and gaffe-strewn election as leader. Since he has long ago signalled he will not lead them into another election, there is huge impatience among some in the parliamentary party. They want to know when and how he will exit and allow a successor lead preparations for an election which could come sooner rather than later. The antics of junior science minister John Halligan last week have reminded everyone just how fragile this minority hybrid coalition really is. There are too many things going against the Fine Gael-led Government to have any confidence in its durability.

Some party rebels had many weeks ago signalled they would once again be stoking up the leadership issue at this gathering in the Keadeen Hotel in Newbridge.

But the Taoiseach will also be wearing his best 'Mr Europe' suit as he prepares for Friday's key post-Brexit EU leaders' summit in the Slovenian capital of Bratislava.

This weekend, he pointed out that he will be the only leader present from the islands of Ireland and Britain. He also spoke about how hard it will be to forge new UK-EU relationships, minimising trade disruption and avoiding border controls.

Britain remains insistent that there must be some curbs on EU internal migration. For the bulk of the remaining EU member states, free movement is a core value which cannot be compromised.

There is minimal wriggle room here. As always, Ireland is in a very invidious position with potentially most to lose - potentially even more than Britain which, though battered and threatened with recession, remains the world's sixth largest economy.

Enda Kenny has had some ropey moments since the Brexit result emerged in the early hours of June 24 last. His efforts to lead a coherent Irish response foundered in statements about the North, which should have been signalled in advance with Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP and a pro-Brexiteer. Mr Kenny's credentials as well-got with the EU's EPP Christian Democrat grouping also looked pretty shook. In the nothing-for-nothing world of international diplomacy, there is not often room for sentiment.

The sheer scale of the EU Commission €13bn ruling against Apple, which like the Brexit outcome left Ireland as 'piggy in the middle', clearly drove that home. Ireland is facing into a very uncertain world where relations between all the countries in the islands of Britain and Ireland may be redefined, as will relations between Ireland north and south, and between Britain and the EU, in which Ireland will remain.

But Mr Kenny has no intention of going anywhere for now. At Pembroke College in Oxford last Friday night, he delivered an eloquent script on the Brexit implications and handled a series of questions from politicians and academics with assurance.

He expects to rely upon his ministers, junior and senior, as well as other parliamentary party members who got preferment, and will be hard to shift. He has form in that department.

Five TDs have put their heads above the parapet voicing varying levels of impatience on the issue. These are Brendan Griffin of Kerry, Fergus O'Dowd of Louth, Jim Daly of Cork South West, Michael D'Arcy of Wexford, and Pat Deering of Carlow.

There are others biding their time. Those rebels who had the pluck to show themselves feel entitled to look to those others and urge something more than words of dissent behind the scenes. That might even be a lightly-coded message to one potential leadership successor, Leo Varadkar.

Talking to a wide variety of backbenchers in recent days, there was no great sense of imminent rebellion before the Budget on October 11. After that, things could take a belligerent turn.

But even those standing well back from the fray, and not especially anti-Kenny, acknowledge an upcoming battle which could become very acrimonious. "If this drags on after Christmas, things will become very difficult for Enda Kenny," one so-far neutral TD said.

Even Kenny's internal opponents feel he will not go without a fight. "The reality is that Enda Kenny will be 'put out' rather than go of his own accord. That is not good for the country and not good for Fine Gael," one anti-Kennyite said.

Today's gathering in Kildare may be an important future indicator.

Irish Independent

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