Wednesday 26 October 2016

Britain's woe could also prove to be Kenny's opportunity to hang in for a few more years

Published 05/10/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny chats with Gerry King from Co Louth at the recent National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Taoiseach Enda Kenny chats with Gerry King from Co Louth at the recent National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Enda Kenny OBE - out before Easter? It's what many people in Fine Gael predict will happen. The Taoiseach, however, may privately have a very different view. And, not for the first time, events just might be moving his way - more of which anon.

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The common view in and around Leinster House is that Kenny knows, and accepts, his tenure is drawing to a close and will go at a time of his choosing, sometime next spring.

He's big on landmarks - remember the fuss about being the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected. And, by April 19 next year (the Wednesday after Easter Sunday), he will overtake John A Costello by becoming Fine Gael's longest-serving Taoiseach - another notch to the Kenny legacy.

So he could announce he's standing down sometime in March or early April and, by the time a successor is chosen and formally elected Taoiseach, Mr Kenny will have comfortably reached that milestone. He could then head off happily, just turned 66, to live the rest of his life - leaving the country and his party in a better place than he found them; and the near humiliation of the last election a fading memory.

Perhaps it will indeed pan out like that. But nothing about Enda Kenny's ruthless and single-minded term as Fine Gael leader suggests that it will. And there is an interesting counter view to mainstream opinion among some who have watched Kenny's career at close quarters.

They say he feels that he hasn't got the credit he deserves from his time as Taoiseach. That he is quite happy for people to believe he'll stand aside in six months. But that he actually intends staying on a lot longer - for at least another two years.

If that is the case, then the timing of the UK's invoking of Article 50 to exit the EU could hardly have fallen better for him. It coincides almost exactly with the date most people in Fine Gael expect Kenny to announce his departure.

And, were he of a mind to stay on, you can already hear the line being pushed by Kenny's (ever-dwindling) circle: 'This is a critical time for Ireland. The national interest requires the Taoiseach stays in place for now. With his experience of, and contacts in, the EU, he's the man to ensure Brexit happens on the best possible terms for Ireland.'

It's hugely debatable whether this argument stands up to much scrutiny. Kenny is well respected in Europe and enjoys a good relationship with Angela Merkel.

But what has that ever really delivered for Ireland? Merkel isn't exactly the clubbable type and is scrupulously straight. She might like and respect Kenny, but the Chancellor will do what's best for Germany and the wider EU in that order.

And, while the process of Brexit will certainly begin next spring, it could go on for years. It would arguably be far better to have a new leader here from the beginning of the process - indeed, a younger, more dynamic leadership than currently offered by Kenny and Michael Noonan, with their combined age of 138.

The Government's response since the Brexit referendum result has been somewhat underwhelming, even if you would hope and imagine there's more going on behind the scenes than we know about. With so many political miles on the clock for Kenny and Noonan, the case for a generation change at the top is strong.

But, valid as these significant caveats may be, it's entirely possible that a 'continuity and stability in the national interest' narrative might raise enough question marks to head off any move against Kenny - should he decide to stay on.

Particularly if enough Fine Gael TDs decide that not 'rocking the boat' will ensure the 32nd Dáil continues and a potential general election is deferred for as long as possible.

A lot, of course, will depend on how Fine Gael is going in the opinion polls. There's also the possibility that, if it becomes obvious that Kenny is going nowhere, it will finally flush out one of the leadership contenders to challenge him. But there is absolutely no sign of that happening at the moment. As pointed out here before, there's nobody at the top of Fine Gael with the kind of cojones demonstrated a quarter of a century ago by Albert Reynolds when he decided he had enough of Charlie Haughey.

None of those mooted to succeed the current Taoiseach appear remotely as unrelenting and hard-boiled as Kenny. In politics, particularly when it come to survival, those characteristics count for a lot.

And Kenny has always been a lucky general. He just about held his seat during the 2002 FG General Election rout - losing it would have probably finished him in national politics, instead he ended up as last man standing for the leadership.

He was blessed not to win the 2007 General Election - would he have lasted six months once the economic and banking tsunami had hit? He survived the 2010 leadership heave only because of the ineptness of the challenge. And then he was somehow returned as Taoiseach this year despite losing 26 seats from the previous election.

And he might just be about to get lucky once again. A few months back, it seemed impossible to see Kenny making it to Christmas as Fine Gael leader. Now, Christmas has become Easter and, with that, the possibility of a political resurrection.

Britain's difficulty may yet turn out to be Enda Kenny's opportunity to hang in there for another year or two.

Many in Leinster House are adamant that he won't want to. Are you convinced? I'm not.

Shane Coleman presents Newstalk Breakfast, weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent

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