Fine Gael preparing for election despite Kenny rejecting talk of going to polls in 2017
Fine Gael has begun preparations to fight a general election, its party chairman has revealed.
Martin Heydon conceded his party must work on the assumption that an election could happen in 2017 - and was perhaps more possible in 2018.
The Kildare South TD said the era of Fine Gael being "run by focus groups" was part of the reason for failure in 2016's general election.
Mr Heydon insisted this "focus group era" was now well and truly ended. Work had already begun on renewing grass roots and trying to identify candidates, while recommendations in two damning post-general election reports were being implemented.
The Fine Gael chairman's comments came before Taoiseach Enda Kenny ruled out the prospect of voters going back to the polls in 2017. Although Mr Kenny admitted his biggest challenge in 2016 was getting a government together, he remained optimistic it would last at least another year.
"I do not see an election at all in the very foreseeable future," he said. "We have a three-year confidence and supply agreement with the Fianna Fáil party, with a review at the end of 2018.
"We have 600 tasks in the Programme for Government and we are getting on with that business, and the last thing on my mind is the thought of a general election."
But Mr Heydon stressed Fine Gael's tricky role leading a minority Coalition, dependent especially on Fianna Fáil, meant it was not in the driving seat when it came to calling the next election.
"An election can be called by people other than Fine Gael and we can't control that. So, we will need to put a back-up plan in place in 2017," he told the Irish Independent.
"We don't intend calling an election and we intend working with everybody, as far as we can, to avoid it. Once we continue to provide good government we will continue to try to do that," he said.
Mr Heydon avoided citing Fianna Fáil as the one most likely to cause an election. But there was no doubting what he had in mind with his next reference.
"If others decide it's politically opportune for them to pick an issue to go on, that's up to them," Mr Heydon said.
The issue of water charges will be a major test for all parties in the first quarter - and an election in 2017 arising from this topic cannot be ruled out.
A special Oireachtas committee on the issue, under the chairmanship of an independent chairman, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, will hold its first full public meeting on January 11.
The 20 committee members have until the end of March to produce recommendations for the Dáil. Soundings from the committee's first meeting held in private before Christmas were quite positive.
But Mr Heydon was conscious that once it met publicly things would be different.
"Meetings in public on this issue will have a very different dynamic and a different tone," he said.
He noted that other parties had built their success on opposition to water charges.
"They won't want to see it disappear from the political agenda," he said.
Some form of compromise between the 'big two' parties could stave off a crisis as they comprise 11 of the 20 members. But Mr Heydon dismissed such speculation, insisting that given current Dáil numbers a broader consensus was needed.