Sunday 25 September 2016

History will be kind to Kenny but the future won't be - unless he walks now with his reputation intact

Published 15/09/2016 | 02:30

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Who is Fine Gael's Albert Reynolds? Who will be its Ken Clarke? Reynolds and Clarke were very different political characters in different countries. They did though have one thing in common. While others waffled and prevaricated, they respectively told the leader who appointed them to cabinet that it was time to go.

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Reynolds did so by challenging Charles Haughey for the leadership, spending a few months in exile before CJH ultimately fell on his sword.

Clarke went to Margaret Thatcher, after she failed to stop a leadership challenge going to a second ballot, to tell her the game was up.

"His manner was robust in the brutalist style he has cultivated: the candid friend," Thatcher wrote later.

Whatever about a leadership challenge, Enda Kenny certainly needs a 'candid friend' right now.

Instead, we have Fine Gael senior ministers falling over themselves to tell the media the leadership is not an issue. The Taoiseach, they chime, is not under any pressure. He will decide when it's time for him to go. Nothing to see here.

Understandable - admirable even. But privately, they must know that what they are saying is nonsense.

To be clear, Kenny owes nothing to his party or the country. He brought Fine Gael back from its darkest days in 2002 to the verge of an overall majority - uncharted territory for his party.

When he took over as Taoiseach, Ireland was close to bankruptcy. Today, the country is booming. Not even Kenny's most ardent supporters could claim it was all down to him, but he certainly played an important part.

If a Taoiseach can walk away from the job leaving the country in a better place than he found it, that's a pretty decent legacy. Ask Bertie Ahern or Brian Cowen.

But the truth is that politically, the Taoiseach is a busted flush and has been since Fine Gael's disastrous electoral performance in February. His unpopularity with voters was a big factor in the party's massive seat loss; the fact everybody in Fine Gael so quickly accepted Kenny could never lead them into another election proves that. While he made Fine Gael history by being returned as Taoiseach - simply by being the last man standing - the widespread view within his party was that it was only a matter of time before he stepped aside.

It's why rumblings of a heave before the summer came to nothing. It would be unseemly and downright ungrateful to shove the man who had rescued the party and, arguably, the country, out the door. He should be allowed pick a time of his choosing for a dignified exit, the thinking went. Many ministers and TDs believed Kenny himself accepted it was time to go, most likely after October's Budget.

Not for the first time the Fine Gael grandees seem to have got it wrong about Enda Kenny. He has returned from the summer break emboldened. He says he wants to do the job he got a mandate to do - his 'mojo' has returned.

Some have suggested he can say little else - if a Taoiseach sets a date for departure, he's as good as gone from that point. But this seems more than mere posturing. All the signals, and his body language, suggest Kenny is digging in for the long(ish) haul.

Only a smattering of them will say so publicly, but there's no doubt the vast majority of people in the Fine Gael parliamentary party would prefer that wasn't the case. It's not personal (well, in most cases).

It's just they believe Kenny's time has come and gone. He's no match for the increasingly popular and assured Micheál Martin.

And a new person is needed at the helm to take the fight to a revitalised Fianna Fáil - and relatively quickly, given the instability of the current Dáil.

However, when it comes to leadership, ownership is nine-tenths of the law. As the instigators of the failed 2010 palace coup discovered, he'll be bloody hard to dislodge if he sets his mind to it. And he seems to be setting his mind to it. Why? That's the question his closest political allies should be putting to him. Yes, he has a 'mandate', but after the pasting Fine Gael took in February, only in the technical sense. As for the tasks and duties that he referred to, it's ever thus for a Taoiseach. It's hubris to believe others cannot take on the responsibility.

On a personal level, what is left for him to achieve? He has more than done his bit. Does he feel he needs to shore up his legacy after the election débâcle? If so, he's on a hiding to nothing. History will be kind to him - the coming months may not be.

Why not leave on his own terms, with his legacy intact, the goodwill of a united party and with the rest of his life to enjoy away from the madness of politics? Why overstay the welcome?

And he is at serious risk of doing just that. There's little prospect of Fine Gael rising in the polls. Things have the potential to get very messy in the party over the coming months.

It's highly unlikely that any of the contenders to succeed Kenny will do what Reynolds did a quarter of a century ago. They just don't have his mixture of ambition, political ruthlessness and, ahem...cojones.

But somebody, outside the current circle of malcontents, will raise their head above the parapet and, when that happens, it's not going to be pretty. Unless, of course, a 'candid friend' - the more senior, the better - can prevail on the Taoiseach to see sense.

Irish Independent

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