Wednesday 15 August 2018

Kenny can choose time to depart - or have it chosen for him

'Make no mistake about it, the Fine Gael leadership contest is on'. Photo: Reuters
'Make no mistake about it, the Fine Gael leadership contest is on'. Photo: Reuters

Fionnán Sheahan

Initially, the rural TD thought a colleague was winding him up.

When he answered the phone, on the other end of the line was Simon Coveney. The Fine Gael backbencher was dumbfounded.

"He hadn't heard from him for five years while he was Minister for Agriculture and now he's ringing him up asking how he was getting on," a party colleague said about the call a few weeks ago.

Make no mistake about it, the Fine Gael leadership contest is on.

Coveney himself hit out at speculation over Kenny's future yesterday.

"Papers will write what they will write. That is their job to speculate. But he has my full support. He has the party's full support, actually. Enda's focus for the last number of weeks has been to take on the responsibility as leader of the largest party to put a government together," he said.

Kenny's leadership was most definitely a motivation in the government negotiations. Fine Gael TDs couldn't go into another general election with him as leader. In an election scenario, senior party figures believed he could be replaced quickly and replaced without the necessity of a full leadership race.

The obvious consensus candidate was regarded as Frances Fitzgerald. Leo Varadkar was perceived as willing to go along with that, but Coveney's willingness to wait for another day was less clear. The uncertainty left the party with no path other than a government at whatever cost.

Kenny will become Taoiseach again in the next week. His historic legacy is as the first Fine Gael leader to become Taoiseach in successive elections - and pretty soon he too will be history. Kenny can pick his time to depart or have it chosen for him.

The next leader will be hoping to turn the tables on Fianna Fáil and a new face can revive their fortunes.

The advantage Fianna Fáil is currently enjoying is based on a weak Fine Gael leader.

The party will replace Kenny in what will be a three-way, if not a four-way, contest between Coveney, Varadkar, Fitzgerald and even Paschal Donohoe. Varadkar's outspoken nature means he can be viewed with suspicion within the party. His outburst over the water charges deal with Fianna Fáil didn't do him a lot of favours among the voters who matter - the TDs and Senators in the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

Varadkar's personal life certainly shouldn't be a factor when backbenchers are picking a leader. However, some TDs will consider how the first ever openly gay Cabinet minister will play among conservative voters as party leader.

A quarter of a century on from Bertie Ahern's marital status being referred to in the Fianna Fáil leadership stakes, it would be naive to suggest the country has changed utterly.

Irish Independent

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