Tuesday 27 September 2016

Kenny is in a weak position, both in the Dail and within Fine Gael

Fine Gael may allow him to become Taoiseach while ceasing to lead the party

Eoin O'Malley

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Tough: Enda Kenny (centre) with Richard Bruton, Simon Harris, Paschal Donohoe, Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald and Michael Noonan at an election news conference Photo: Tom Burke
Tough: Enda Kenny (centre) with Richard Bruton, Simon Harris, Paschal Donohoe, Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald and Michael Noonan at an election news conference Photo: Tom Burke

Fine Gael's election performance was dire. The party can spin it - "we're still the largest party" - but Enda Kenny delivered a result that was much closer to the 2002 'disaster' result than the 2011 result. In 2002, the then party leader, Michael Noonan, took responsibility for a result 'beyond our worst fears' and immediately resigned.

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Kenny has taken responsibility for the result, but his conclusion is that his responsibility compels him to open talks with Fianna Fail about forming a new government.

This was hardly a surprise. Enda Kenny is desperate to be re-elected Taoiseach. He would become the first Fine Gael leader to achieve this.

Fianna Fail will be cautious. We're being led on a merry dance at the moment, as each party seeks to start talks on the formation of a government. Fianna Fail claims it will try to form a broad coalition; on these numbers it cannot happen without Fine Gael. But Micheal Martin knows he's in a strong bargaining position. Having come out of a good election, Fianna Fail has less to fear from a second election than most.

Enda, on the other hand, has had a bad election and his party isn't inclined to give him time. So Kenny will be willing to concede almost anything to get a deal with Fianna Fail. Failure means the end of his political career.

Fianna Fail's decision to push for significant Dail reform indicates it is ready to support Fine Gael from the Opposition benches. With these reforms, it will be able to extract maximum publicity from the concessions.

It won't be backroom deals, which are harder to show as victories to the electorate.

One of the problems the PDs, Greens and Labour had in government was that we could not see them fight for policy concessions. Under a minority government arrangement, we will be able to see Fine Gael ministers accept Fianna Fail amendments, so voters will know what the party delivered.

Micheal Martin will want Enda to be Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader. Compared to Enda, Martin is authoritative and a convincing debater.

But Fianna Fail won't want Kenny elected next Thursday, nor will they want to vote for him. They'll be seen to try to put together support for him as Taoiseach, hoping to get more votes than the 57 Kenny is guaranteed. It is possible, but unlikely. It will put Kenny under pressure to talk to other small parties and Independents straight away.

Martin will use the time over the St Patrick's Day and Easter break to prepare ground within the party.

More likely is that after Easter Fianna Fail will abstain in the investiture vote to allow Kenny form a minority Fine Gael government. With Labour or some Independents' support, Kenny could then be elected Taoiseach.

Fianna Fail's strategy is clever. By staying out of government, the party is not tied into supporting Fine Gael. It will be able to bring down the government on an issue that it chooses. It can't do this too quickly - it wants to give time for its new TDs and Senators to bed in, and it needs to be seen to give the government a chance. I suspect May or June in 2017 might be the preferred date. One problem Fianna Fail may have is that Kenny is so desperate that he just might agree to anything.

But parties aren't one person. Other Fine Gael TDs won't want to concede too much - or enter another election with Kenny as leader.

Kenny's prominence in the 2016 campaign contrasted with that in 2011. He was never convincing, but using him so much was an odd strategy. Others in the party will know they have to remove him.

The Fine Gael rules say that if, after an election, Fine Gael is not part of a government, the leader must submit himself to a vote of confidence of the parliamentary party.

The rules give Kenny two months to become Taoiseach, so he won't necessarily have to face a leadership election.

The leadership election will take six weeks, making it impossible to form a government in a reasonable time-frame. Any new leader would effectively have to start the process again.

So is Fine Gael stuck with Kenny? Not necessarily. A possible way out of this conundrum is if Fine Gael was to allow Kenny become Taoiseach, but tell him he has to stand down as leader.

Fine Gael could have a leader who is not Taoiseach. There is a precedent for this. John A Costello became Taoiseach in 1948 when the leader of Fine Gael, Richard Mulcahy, was unacceptable to some coalition partners.

This has a number of advantages for Fine Gael. With Kenny as Taoiseach, but not party leader, it would help Fine Gael distinguish its messaging: some decisions are government decisions, but a new Fine Gael leader could suggest a different position.

This might neutralise the advantage that Fianna Fail will otherwise have of effectively governing from the Opposition benches.

It would give the government the sense that it is a national government, not one that is purely partisan. To that end, Kenny might want to consider using the Seanad route to appoint two outsiders as ministers, as the Constitution allows, or appoint ministers for State from outside the Oireachtas, as Fianna Fail has suggested.

If Fine Gael was to take all appointments, half the TDs would be ministers. This would look bad and could cause tensions in the parliamentary party.

Electing Kenny as Taoiseach, but not as leader, and making the Cabinet smaller or using outside experts could help make the government work better.

Kenny's failings as a campaigner were badly exposed in the election, but no one becomes Taoiseach without significant skills. One of those was as a chair of Cabinet.

Ministers reported that he was business-like and fair. They said that he gave everyone a chance to express their views, regardless of party, but did not indulge poorly informed ministers.

It is suggested that he was a good broker of deals when there were disagreements between ministers. They say that he approached decisions with an open mind and was willing to be convinced. This might be a skill set that would work in the new Dail.

That new Dail will be very different to what we are used to, which may not be a bad thing. While some will worry about instability, the last Government was possibly too stable. Its Dail majority meant it never took Opposition amendments seriously, however well founded. Ministers dismissed questions they didn't like and frequently used the guillotine to railroad bills through a powerless Dail.

As a minority government, it will have to have a changed mindset. Ministers and civil servants will have to get used to seeing Opposition TDs as collaborators, not opponents. Parliamentary questions could be a way to actually give the public information, not a trap to evade. The new Ceann Comhairle will likely be more forceful than the last and the rule changes that Fianna Fail is pursuing will make it a better parliament. We could see real legislative work happen as committees finally function as they are meant to. If done well, such changes could also be the making of Enda Kenny.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is a senior lecturer in political science at the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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