Crisis for Kenny as Independents abandon FG deal
Prospect of fresh election raised ahead of FG/FF historic talks
Enda Kenny's plan to form a Fine Gael-led minority government has been dealt a serious blow this weekend after a group of rural Independent TDs decided not to support his nomination for Taoiseach.
The Sunday Independent has learned that the so-called 'rural Independents' agreed by a four-to-one majority in a teleconference on Friday night not to back Mr Kenny for Taoiseach this week or in any future vote.
The development increases pressure on Mr Kenny ahead of crucial talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail this week.
Last night Fine Gael and the Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, issued simultaneous statements to confirm that both parties will meet next week to "discuss how a viable minority government would work".
The statements followed what were described as "exploratory talks" which took place at a secret location yesterday,
Late last night Fianna Fail negotiator, Barry Cowen, raised the prospect of another general election.
He said Fianna Fail would "continue to seek to support" from Independent TDs and "in the event of Fianna Fail getting most support from Independents, Fine Gael will have to support a Fianna Fail-led minority government - otherwise there will be an election."
But Mr Cowen also said that in the event that Fine Gael got more support from Independents, Fianna Fail was "willing to consider options to support that minority government".
The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has, to date, ruled out the possibility of Fine Gael supporting a Fianna Fail-led minority government.
A Fine Gael spokeswoman yesterday sought to play down the prospect of an election. She said Mr Kenny was "trying to do the best for the country" and that "another election isn't it".
However, the decision by the 'rural Independents' to withold support from Mr Kenny raises the prospect that he may be forced to go to Aras an Uachtarain on Thursday to ask President Michael D Higgins to dissolve the Dail. In that event, the President could well refuse to do so.
The historic talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are expected to focus on this issue of Fine Gael's refusal, to date, to confirm it would support a Fianna Fail-led minority government.
Another key sticking point will be the duration of any such a minority government.
Fine Gael yesterday suggested the duration of such a government may be based on targets, rather than a timescale.
Yesterday, Mr Martin said it would be "impossible to predict" how long such a minority government could "administrate", adding: "No one is going to get a guarantee of anything in that sense (duration)."
The outcome of this week's talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will prove crucial to Mr Kenny's third attempt to be re-elected Taoiseach, scheduled to take place this Thursday.
Should be fail to secure a minimum 58 votes, his continued leadership of the party is expected to become a more public issue. Mr Kenny is currently guaranteed 50 Fine Gael votes and of former Fine Gael TD, Michael Lowry.
Last night, a 'rural Independent' TD told the Sunday Independent: "Fine Gael is not necessarily the problem. Enda Kenny is the problem."
An Independent Alliance TD also said: "A Fine Gael change of leadership would certainly change the dynamic."
The Sunday Independent has also learned that the former attorney-general and justice minister, Michael McDowell, this weekend advised the 'rural Independents' in relation to the constitutional powers of the Presidency.
The former Fine Gael TD Denis Naughten, of the Rural Alliance, is understood to have not supported the decision of his colleagues to rule out supporting Mr Kenny.
However, the loss of the votes of four 'rural Independents' at a crucial stage in the government-formation process will come as a serious blow to the acting Taoiseach and a significant setback to the formation of the next government.
There are between 15 and 20 TDs who want to remove Mr Kenny as Fine Gael leader but fear publicly criticising him.
Fine Gael is this weekend still attempting to shore up support among other Independent TDs and the Independent Alliance.
Fine Gael continues to seek to increase pressure on Fianna Fail and Independents to support a Fine Gael-led minority government under the leadership of Mr Kenny.
But last night an Independent Alliance TD said he believed that Mr Kenny stepping aside would "make it easier" for Fianna Fail to accept a Fine Gael partnership government.
However, Mr Martin has firmly ruled out such an arrangement and is strongly supported by the vast majority of his parliamentary party.
Yesterday Leo Varadkar insisted Fine Gael's offer of a partnership government "still stands". "We still believe that is the option to provide lasting government for the country and also to implement the policies to keep the economy strong," he said.
Independent TDs want Fine Gael and Fianna Fail resolve issues in relation to Irish Water and the abolition of the Universal Social Charge, as well as a budgetary breakdown and rules on how the new Dail will operate under a minority government.
In the unlikely event that all of these issues will be resolved, the possibility exists that Thursday's vote for Taoiseach may be postponed until next week.