Sunday 23 October 2016

Kenny hopes findings will be awkward but not politically fatal

Published 02/09/2015 | 02:30

Former garda chief Martin Callinan and former Justice Minister Alan Shatter Photo: Steve Humphreys
Former garda chief Martin Callinan and former Justice Minister Alan Shatter Photo: Steve Humphreys

Enda Kenny is among the very few people still at Leinster House who will have a personal recall of the last time a Taoiseach tried "to get his retaliation in first" in relation to an official inquiry report.

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On July 29, 1994, Albert Reynolds had a statement issued saying he had been "totally vindicated" in the voluminous Beef Tribunal report. That assertion became the subject of a bitter row between the governing parties in the then-Fianna Fáil coalition with the Labour Party which had 101 of the Dáil's 166 TDs.

By November 17, 1994, Mr Reynolds had to resign as Taoiseach and his government had fallen. Most observers, in both Labour and Fianna Fáil agree that the huge tangled controversy about clerical sex abuse, which actually broke that government, was totally compounded by Mr Reynolds's decision to pre-empt publication of the full beef report with his own contentious interpretation.

The circumstances, beyond a common Taoiseach's "pre-buttal", of both these controversies are vastly different. To borrow a private phrase favoured by one of Ireland's wiliest former mandarins, Mr Kenny's current situation would appear to be "awkward but not politically fatal."

At this point, Mr Kenny's position as Taoiseach appears solid. We can expect the Fine Gael party to circle the wagons and meet the critics from Fianna Fáil and the other opposition parties.

Their Coalition colleagues in Labour have been nervously studying this issue for some time. Had Mr Justice Fennelly found that the Taoiseach had de facto sacked the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, in March 2014, Mr Kenny would not have been able to stay in office. The Coalition's ability to stay the course would also have been called into question.

Labour set much store in recent times by Mr Kenny and his team's both public and private composure in dealing with this Fennelly Commission investigation. Last night, the party issued a statement making it clear that the findings meant things could continue.

Labour conceded that Mr Justice Fennelly had pointed up shortcomings which were being addressed or would be addressed in the future. In essence, Labour will not be jumping from the government ship over this one. The Taoiseach can count on cross-party government support.

But Mr Kenny still remains in a very awkward position indeed - one no Taoiseach would wish to be in just months away from a general election.

The opposition will make every effort build on this one. They will especially emphasise the poor image generated by these events, showing evidence of a lack of control and extremely poor communications inside Mr Kenny's Government.

This one will be added to the water charges debacle and other less than fortunate political occurrences which happened on this Taoiseach's watch. The overall aim will be to sow doubts among voters about whether Mr Kenny and his colleagues merit re-election some time this coming winter or next spring.

Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin, who has coursed and harried the Taoiseach on this issue all through the year, donned his best available pair of kicking boots yesterday evening and sought to drive home these points. The opposition onslaught will continue and Sinn Féin has already upped the ante by calling on Mr Kenny "to consider his position".

But at lunchtime yesterday, the Taoiseach had decided to take the game to his critics and most especially, Michéal Martin.

Mr Kenny insisted that the interim report of Mr Justice Nial Fennelly left him totally vindicated.

"I welcome the report's clear and unambiguous finding that the question of removing the former Commissioner from his position was not even discussed," the Taoiseach said in a statement issued at lunchtime - hours before the full report was issued.

"The Report confirms that the former Commissioner decided to retire, and that he could have decided otherwise. Furthermore, it finds that I had no intention of putting pressure on the former Commissioner to retire," Mr Kenny continued.

The tone and tenor of the statement was followed on in a media engagement by the Taoiseach at lunchtime and repeated in a strong performance on RTÉ's 6.1 television news. Mr Kenny has clearly decided to start the new political season in fighting mode and is intent on boxing his way straight out of the corner in which he finds himself.

But 40 years of Dáil politics have taught the Taoiseach that he will have to go through the same fight moves in the coming weeks. This one has already forced two very senior people - Justice Minister Alan Shatter and the secretary general of that departmen, Brian Purcell - from their jobs.

Mr Kenny's fight is about ensuring he is not the third one to fall.

The opposition will return again and again to Mr Purcell's late-night visit to the then-Commissioner's home on March 24, 2014. This came at the insistence of the Taoiseach and proved to be the "immediate catalyst" in Mr Callinan's resignation.

"He (Mr Purcell) had never had to do this before and did not believe that any other Secretary General had done so.

"A visit by him to the home of a Garda Commissioner was an unprecedented event," the Fennelly report notes.

The opposition will argue that this in the real world amounts to the Taoiseach forcing the Commissioner out of his job. Mr Kenny will continue to insist Mr Callinan decided to retire and he could have decided to stay on in his post.

Ultimately, Mr Kenny's biggest hope will be that the public will tire of this complex row and things can then move on. But when things start to go wrong in politics, one thing can follow another.

Irish Independent

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