Sunday 17 December 2017

Fight for Kenny's seat is more than a two-horse race

When you undo the family ties to reveal young gunslingers and old hands alike, it could get messy

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

The race to succeed Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael is on a brief hiatus as the would-be kings and queen take a break from preparing for the Taoiseach's retirement years.

But in Mr Kenny's backyard of Castlebar, Co Mayo, the campaign to replace him as the local Fine Gael TD is in full swing.

Potential heirs to the coveted seat, which Mr Kenny has held for a record 41 years, are already positioning themselves ahead of his imminent departure.

Mr Kenny's close confidants and loyal lieutenants know there will soon be a gap in the market for one of the safest Fine Gael seats in the country.

Whoever fills the position, which comes with a €87,258 salary and €31,365 worth of unvouched expenses, will need the blessing of the Fine Gael leader to ensure the local support base weighs in behind the new Castlebar candidate.

So it is believed locally that Mr Kenny will have to anoint, or at least support, the candidacy of his successor.

However, camps are emerging in the Taoiseach's heartland in anticipation of the next era of Fine Gael politics in Mayo.

Much of the manoeuvring may be pointless if, as many suspect, the close-knit Kenny family decide the name which he carried from his father Henry should remain on the ballot sheet for another generation. The Taoiseach's daughter, Aoibhinn Kenny, is the best-placed member of the clan to carry the baton for the Islandeady family.

Aoibhinn immersed herself in student politics while studying in University College Dublin (UCD) and was selected for the prestigious Washington Ireland Programme, which prepares ambitious young people for future leadership roles.

Past pupils include none other than Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar, who also happens to be leading the race to replace Aoibhinn's father at the Fine Gael top table.

On a side note, the coronation of Mr Varadkar as the next Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach being played out in the opinion polls is not translating in the parliamentary party, where there is a slow but sure sway towards Housing Minister Simon Coveney of late.

It seems some of those previously supporting the candidacy of Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald have come to the conclusion, based on polls, that the contest will be a two-horse race. They may be wrong.

However, a Cabinet minister last week went as far as to compare the Fine Gael leadership battle to the contest to replace David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party. In this instance Mr Varadkar's candidacy was likened to Boris Johnson, who was seen as a sure bet until he pulled out of the contest, and Mr Coveney was compared to surprise winner Theresa May, who shored up internal party support.

I'm not sure who should be more insulted there.

But back to Castlebar.

Aoibhinn is not the only member of the Kenny inner circle tipped to replace her father. There is also speculation around the Taoiseach's young confidante and recently promoted deputy Government press officer Jack O'Donnell.

Mr O'Donnell was signed up as a personal assistant to Mr Kenny last year under the pretence of building up local support for the Taoiseach ahead of the general election.

His duties far exceeded merely liaising with local media and constituents and he often accompanied Mr Kenny on State business - both at home and abroad.

"Kenny always seems more relaxed when Jack is about," a senior Fine Gael strategist said of the relationship between the Castlebar pair.

Friends of the young Fine Gael activist insist he has no ambition to become a TD.

But others point to his work as an intern for former US presidential candidate John McCain, and as an Irish representative on President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker's election campaign, as evidence of his credentials for a future in elected politics.

Either way, he has the ear of the Taoiseach more than most from the Castlebar cartel, and is seen as an ambitious young upstart.

Former Fine Gael councillor Ger Deere is also mentioned in dispatches due to his hard work in Mr Kenny's constituency office in recent years, but he is an outside bet at best.

Then there's the Burke family - Paddy and Cyril.

The Castlebar political heavyweights and lifelong Kenny supporters are all too aware of the looming vacancy.

Paddy was rewarded for his loyalty with the position of Cathaoirleach of the Seanad during Mr Kenny's first term as Taoiseach. During government formation talks he was sent out to gauge the opinion of Independent TDs prior to formal negotiations with Fine Gael. The six-time senator is a politician who works behind the scenes and does not crave the airwaves or pages of newspapers like some of his contemporaries. He is popular within the party and well accustomed to the chicken dinner circuit from travelling the county seeking the votes of Fine Gael councillors for Seanad elections.

It has also been noted that Mr Burke is showing up to more local events than he previously would, with some believing he is seeking to boost his profile in the constituency ahead of the next election.

Supporters note that, while he may not be a spring chicken, he is younger than Enda Kenny and Fine Gael's Westport stalwart, Junior Minister Michael 'Ringer' Ring.

It is unlikely the Burkes will publicly make a move until Mr Kenny states his intentions , but there is a strong belief the family are eager to challenge for the Castlebar seat. If the Taoiseach decides his daughter or young protégé should be his successor, it could result in a stand-off with Mr Burke.

There is also the possibility, albeit slim, that Mr Kenny may be left with little option but to run again.

If the Taoiseach is forced into calling a snap election by Fianna Fail, he may have to run again as the party could not risk a safe seat by running a newcomer.

He has always said he will not run for a third term as Fine Gael leader, but has never ruled out the possibility of returning as a TD.

Outside of Castlebar, Michelle Mulherin will be anxious to return to the Dail as will popular former Mayo County manager John O'Mahony. Mr O'Mahony took one for the team and moved to the Galway West constituency ahead of the general election and in doing so handed over his electoral base to the notoriously territorial Ringer.

However, Mr O'Mahony retained most of his Mayo canvassing team for the Galway West campaign.

There will only be two seats at most in Mayo for Fine Gael at the next election - one is Ringer's and the other is likely to be one of the Castlebar candidates'. Ahead of the election, Fine Gael will have tough choices to make and the party will be eager to ensure Mr Kenny's legacy is continued into the next Dail term.

Sunday Independent

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