Friday 20 April 2018

Enda comes out swinging, but end of reign could still be on the horizon

Charles Haughey famously said: “Some Chinese leaders go on into their 90s, you know, though that may be a bit long.” Picture: Maxpix
Charles Haughey famously said: “Some Chinese leaders go on into their 90s, you know, though that may be a bit long.” Picture: Maxpix

Johnny Fallon

Enda Kenny is in combative mood at the moment. Some would say he has 'come out swinging'. On the surface, he looks to be putting his opponents in their box. He is not going anywhere any time soon.

However, it could well be that he is actually setting in motion the end of his reign. This is not new; it is a phenomenon that we see in leadership all the time. A leader can often issue their strongest call right before they fall.

There is a problem with setting out a timeline for the end of your leadership. If you do so, you become a lame duck. Therefore, any announcement must be for the short term. Sadly, the reins of power are not easy to give up. From the outside, everyone can see that whatever Enda Kenny's legacy may be, it is now formed. He can claim quite a few positives and needs to focus on that.

However, like many predecessors, he is instead focusing on a 'timeline'. Politicians using this terminology rarely think in terms of actual time. They think in terms of feelings. Unfinished business. Upcoming events, the next story they would like to settle, the next event they would like to handle.

They live in the belief that a moment will arise where they feel content and can then walk away. The truth is this never comes; there is always a reason to hang on another month.

There is a fascinating pattern at play here. Charles Haughey famously said that he had a timeline to his retirement. He suggested that others in cabinet knew this and all seemed to agree that he should be afforded that time. The longer it went on, the itchier everyone became. The public started to want change. The leadership contenders wanted the moment that was right for them. The backbenchers wanted promotions. The government wanted stability so it could move on.

Haughey then started to tire of the continual questions. It began to grate. He got combative. He began to talk more about his timeline and suggested people should wait. He then famously said: "Some Chinese leaders go on into their 90s, you know, though that may be a bit long."

This was typical Haughey. Always ready to finish with a flourish and demonstrate that he was in control. That flourish was his downfall.

Once his party saw that Haughey was in fact annoyed by these questions, they began to doubt that he would ever walk away. He might stay in place for years. Nothing hastened his end more than this and it culminated in a no confidence motion and the sacking of Albert Reynolds in a heave. That heave failed but it dealt a mortal blow that saw Reynolds replace Haughey within months.

In the last months of the FF/Labour government under Reynolds, he too was accused of being "drunk on power".

He was pushing harder for his own way in the belief that the results showed he was right. Reynolds too had said he would not be in the job for long. Bertie Ahern knew that the longer he held back the more there was the chance of somebody like Máire Geoghegan Quinn competing with him. Luckily for him, the government fell and Reynolds resigned before he had to face a challenge.

But in recent times, perhaps the best example of all was Brian Cowen. He did face down a challenge. He seemed to put all his opponents in their place and was ready to lead his party into an election. He felt strong. He lambasted the opposition in the Dáil suggesting "It's worth coming in here for half-an-hour" just to listen to them because they were so entertaining. Some ministers were not standing again and Cowen (inset) decided they should now be replaced and when they obliged by stepping aside he appointed new ministers. Whatever the Green Party said, it was clear Cowen wasn't listening. He was fighting. The adrenalin was flowing and he wasn't going to take these questions lying down. One might say he felt he had his 'mojo' back. His party watched in horror. It was a matter of days before they raced back to Micheál Martin, fearing they had made a mistake.

Cowen, by his show of bravado, dismissing all opponents, had brought about his immediate demise.

Enda Kenny has talked a lot about his timetable. Some say it will be after the Budget. Some say Christmas, some say early next year. He says he will serve his full mandate. He says it "is no time to play party politics".

Others may feel this is exactly the time for that. The Government cannot continue with everyone looking over their shoulder at who might be the new king or queen and who might be the new power brokers. The Taoiseach's latest flourish suggesting he got his 'mojo' back may be the very thing that worries his colleagues. They may wonder if like many leaders this final lap is now about him rather than the party.

The question is does anyone have the courage to say it? Lessons from Irish politics show us that he who wields the knife often wears the crown.

Whatever Enda Kenny is holding on for, he will probably wonder afterwards why he bothered. As the song says: "Know when to walk away and know when to run."

Johnny Fallon is a political analyst with Carr Communications

Irish Independent

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