Thursday 27 October 2016

Unspoken leadership contest casts shadow over talks

The contrast in styles of Varadkar and Coveney indicate that the race to succeed Kenny has begun, writes Eoin O'Malley

Eoin O'Malley

Published 01/05/2016 | 02:30

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar
Simon Coveney

The image of Enda Kenny hangs like a pall over the formation of a government.

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Kenny was always going to concede on Irish Water and water charges. As I observed here on the day of the election count, he would concede anything to get back into government. He looked a broken man that day, but it is well known that he's resilient and he saw an opportunity in the fact that no other government was likely. He chose to fight on.

Shane Ross later called him a political corpse, but he was only partly right. A bit like a dying Godfather, he might be weak, but he still has power. It's difficult to remove him because there's uncertainty about who would succeed him and how long that might take. An election at this time would be chaotic for Fine Gael.

The negotiations are complicated by the race to succeed Kenny. It's still under the radar, but that race has started. We can't be sure, but Leo Varadkar's comments last week on Fianna Fail's decision to threaten to bring down the negotiations, and hence precipitate an election on the issue of Irish Water, might be part of that leadership race.

Varadkar looks barely engaged in the process. In post-negotiation briefings, he appears to be elsewhere. This might be that he doesn't think it will work. But he's in contrast to Simon Coveney who has taken a lead and acts as the Fine Gael spokesman for those briefings.

Coveney is clearly anxious to get a deal through. Again, he might be positioning himself as the natural successor to Kenny - the man who can make this deal work. He might also be positioning himself well with Kenny to get a good job in the new Cabinet. Coveney has been stuck in a backwater department for five years. He needs something bigger if he's to show he's leadership material.

It could just be his famous 'straight talking', but Varadkar's reaction last week was playing to the Fine Gael TDs and senators, who make up the bulk of the electorate in a leadership contest, that he would not have conceded. It's a signal that if he were in charge, he would get tough with Fianna Fail.

Those Fine Gael TDs can't be happy that having loyally supported Irish Water for years, it's being scrapped at Fianna Fail's say so. It must be doubly galling because this has all the appearance of a political deal with no political upside for them. It's designed to save Enda Kenny.

It puts Fine Gael in the firing line for governing for the next year - and let's face it, the government will last no more than that - while Fianna Fail will clearly have all the power. Those Fine Gael TDs might prefer the idea of the being led by someone who has shown a willingness to stand up for Fine Gael than being led by one who appears too conciliatory.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fail seems to have gone full PD. Fianna Failers used to complain at how easily offended the Progressive Democrats got when they governed together. The PDs used to regularly have pangs of moral outrage at what it saw as underhand dealings by Fianna Fail.

Fianna Fail cranked up its outrage machine last week. Michael McGrath argued that for minority government to work, it needs to be based on trust.

Trust helps but an understanding of power is more important. Bertie Ahern, who managed PD moral outrage well, knew when he could push something and when he couldn't.

Enda Kenny might want to, and might be able to, manage Fianna Fail's faux outrage. But he won't have power for much longer. The day he nominates his new government is the day his power ebbs from him. He will have nothing left to offer his supporters and those overlooked in the ministerial nominations will have nothing to lose. Then the Fine Gael leadership contest will really kick off.

Sunday Independent

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