Thursday 29 September 2016

Suddenly, Enda has become an unlucky general

Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster at the North-South ministerial council in Dublin this week Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster at the North-South ministerial council in Dublin this week Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The man who says he wants to be Taoiseach eventually, Leo Varadkar, clung to his Micawberesque belief that "something would turn up".

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The week had dealt several tough blows to his boss, Enda Kenny. How could he still claim to have "full confidence" in the man he clearly wants to succeed?

"It's only Thursday. So, I imagine there will be more before the end of the week," the Social Protection Minister offered.

So, the KFM radio interviewer wanted to know, could it be five or six calamities before the weekend? "No. Two or three positive things could happen before the end of the week. A week is a long time in politics as you know," Varadkar said.

The trend of debacle continued, with the Government side failing to field a Dáil quorum yesterday, causing delays in business, and allowing the Opposition to claim the moral high ground.

Meanwhile, the cries for the Fine Gael leader to explain how - if not when - he will depart grew, with Government chief whip Regina Doherty publicly calling for clarification.

This was the week in which the two best arguments for keeping Enda Kenny on as Taoiseach were seriously challenged.

The first argument, his vast European experience as Britain makes for the EU exit, did not look so strong. His own first post-Brexit initiative, that of opening a common front with Belfast, failed to even get to the starting gate.

Those present at Dublin Castle on Monday cringed as they saw the Taoiseach sheepishly trying to explain away why his "all-island forum" did not have Democratic Unionist Party "buy-in". For Arlene Foster, the North's First Minister and DUP leader, the issue had not even arisen.

The icily polite Ms Foster said the idea had gained currency over last weekend. But there was a snag. "It was not discussed with me," Ms Foster said frankly.

The Taoiseach was left floundering. Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness coming to his aid, endorsing the forum, only made matters look worse.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, a diligent worker on the North's issues, looked stony-faced into the middle distance. Neither Flanagan nor his officials were consulted before the forum was disastrously outlined in public.

At the same time, the Taoiseach's considerable interpersonal skills keeping the hybrid Cabinet on track also did not look so clever.

Three ministers from the Independent Alliance decided to disregard the Attorney General's constitutional advice and vote in favour of Deputy Mick Wallace's bill on fatal foetal abnormality.

Seven members of the Fine Gael Oireachtas party were forced out when they defied the voting guideline on the Defence of Life in Pregnancy Bill in July 2013. But now ministers could disregard the Attorney General and vote against the Taoiseach's wishes.

The combination swiftly brought the simmering issue of Kenny's own exit strategy to the boil on the Fine Gael hob and the heat intensified with his strange decision to appoint Senator James Reilly as deputy leader.

Since the election of this strange hybrid minority Government on May 6, the party's TDs and senators have puzzled over just how to reconcile two contradictory statements by Kenny.

On one hand he has said he will not lead the party into the next general election. Against that, he says he will serve the full Government term as Taoiseach.

Since we know not when this creaky Coalition will fall, how can those statements be reconciled?

Fianna Fáil is busy pulling the power strings from the opposition benches.

It takes no leap of imagination to see Micheál Martin pulling down the Government and obliging Fine Gael to hurriedly campaign again under Kenny.

Let's recall that on Kenny's watch, Fine Gael came back in February with 26 fewer TDs than it had in the 2011 General Election.

Fianna Fáil's fortunes are now on the rise, with a 33pc showing in 'The Irish Times' Ipsos-MRBI poll published on Thursday morning. Fine Gael's fortunes are dipping - on 24pc. It compounds the sense of dread within the parliamentary party.

The much vaunted 'lucky general' may be running out of luck. He is 65 years old, albeit an enviably youthful and fit 65, and he has led his party through various waves of adversity and triumph for 14 years, a very long time given the attrition rates in modern politics.

Many in the party acknowledge Kenny's contribution to Fine Gael. But we are very definitely looking at preparations to replace him.

The only question now is one of timing. It is often perilous to try to choreograph a leader's exit.

One Fine Gael politician recalled this week that Bertie Ahern announced on April 2, 2008, that he would leave office as Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader on the following May 6.

The ensuing month of Ahern laps of honour, and a coronation for his ill-starred replacement, Brian Cowen, meant Fianna Fáil lost its shape and focus as the political and economic storm clouds darkened.

A Kenny "long goodbye" seems neither advisable nor feasible.

The moment the Taoiseach concedes that he is leaving, he loses what residual power and authority he has.

For now, the consensus is that he is in his final months and the lead replacement contenders, Varadkar and Simon Coveney, continue to limber up.

But the key decision on timing still rests with Kenny himself. Beleaguered he may be - but he has often shown himself at his best while boxing off the ropes.

Irish Independent

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