Friday 23 February 2018

In a week of shocks and tremors, we saw the cracks opening under Enda

The unexplained reappointment of James Reilly as FG's number two caused the waters to turn choppy

Taoiseach Enda Kenny Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny Photo: Tom Burke
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

It has been perhaps the most turbulent week of Taoiseach Enda Kenny's leadership of Fine Gael as a series of events combined to make his early departure from the helm ever more likely.

On Monday, the North's First Minister, Arlene Foster, slapped down his plan for an all-island forum to deal with Brexit.

Fergus O'Dowd Photo: Tom Burke
Fergus O'Dowd Photo: Tom Burke

Tuesday saw the departure of Joe O'Toole, chairman of the Expert Commission on funding water, amid accusations that Mr O'Toole had undermined his own role with remarks in interviews.

The following day, the future of Kenny's leadership of Fine Gael was openly discussed as Kenny listened while a number of TDs raised their concern about the direction of the party.

It was Louth Deputy Fergus O'Dowd who uttered the 'L-word' at the now infamous parliamentary party meeting.

Mr O'Dowd later told the Sunday Independent that while he wanted to see change at the top of Fine Gael "sooner rather than later", his intervention was not intended as an "attack on the leadership".

Leo Varadkar Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Leo Varadkar Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

However, it's a meeting that may in future be viewed as pivotal when Kenny's career is examined by political historians.

It was at this meeting that Kenny also announced the reappointment of deputy leader, James Reilly - a move that came as a surprise even to ministers. And the issue has festered, causing rising anger among backbenchers as the week went on.

O'Dowd wasn't the only TD that raised issues that night.

Cork South West TD Jim Daly and Carlow-Kilkenny's Pat Deering both questioned the Taoiseach's capitulation to the demands of Transport Minister Shane Ross to allow a free vote on the issue of Mick Wallace's bill on fatal foetal abnormalities.

Simon Coveney Photo: Tom Burke
Simon Coveney Photo: Tom Burke

Shane Ross and junior ministers Finian McGrath and John Halligan all duly voted in favour of the Bill, although it was defeated as Fine Gael TDs and most of Fianna Fail voted it down.

The same day, Housing Minister Simon Coveney - one of the three main contenders to succeed Kenny - said he expected the leadership of Fine Gael to be discussed "in the not too distant future" but that for now the issue was a distraction.

His rival - Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar - took to the airwaves to say how he would "love" to lead the party but emphasised that there was no vacancy.

The issue escalated on Friday when government Chief Whip Regina Doherty said Enda Kenny should outline a timetable for his departure though she later rowed back considerably stressing that Kenny has her support.

Regina Doherty
Regina Doherty

With none of the main contenders said to be considering a heave against Kenny, several ministers including Varadkar, Coveney, Paschal Donohoe and Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald - the last of the three main leadership hopefuls - all spoke publicly of their continued backing for the Taoiseach.

Leo Vardakar and Frances Fitzgerald repeated their loyalty to Kenny yesterday after the Battle of the Somme Centenary Commemoration, also attended by Mr Kenny.

Then it emerged last night that the party faced fresh chaos with a group of backbenchers discussing tabling motions on Kenny's leadership at the next meeting of Fine Gael Oireachtas members.

O'Dowd said he doesn't regret raising the leadership issue on Wednesday and that he merely broached an issue that Kenny had already openly discussed, namely his pledge to depart the stage ahead of the next general election.

He said replacing Enda Kenny must be discussed over the summer amid the threat of Fianna Fail's power to pull the plug on the minority government at any time.

"The election could come across us suddenly, rather than a long time away, and obviously Fianna Fail - you know - they're playing the music we have to dance to at times, which obviously doesn't leave anybody happy," he said.

Mr O'Dowd also told the Sunday Independent that he wanted to see the party move away from the right-wing policies which he said had an negative impact in the general election and that if none of the contenders to replace Kenny were advocating moving Fine Gael to the centre, he would consider running himself.

O'Dowd said: "I feel that the party and the country need to go in a new direction. The party needs new leadership and we'll have to have a new leader in place by the time of the General Election.

"The Taoiseach has said he won't be leading the party in that election, so I think that sooner rather than later I would like to see that change."

The former junior minister, who said he joined the party out of admiration for the liberal policies pursued by its late leader Garret FitzGerald, said that Fine Gael "was probably too much to the Right" in the last General Election.

"We needed to move it into the centre and obviously there are issues around the health services, looking at the new generation that needs housing, the question of repeal of the Eighth Amendment."

O'Dowd, who was demoted from his junior minister job in 2014 and didn't get a call to serve as a minister this time either, denied that his remarks were motivated by being overlooked and insisted he's a "team player".

Enda Kenny meanwhile, has a high-profile meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss Brexit on Tuesday. In this context Education Minister Richard Bruton, the man behind the failed 2010 heave against Enda Kenny said he strongly supports his continued leadership now.

"This is a time when the Taoiseach's strong relationships across the EU will be of immense help as Ireland responds to the many challenges posed by the UK's decision to exit the EU," he said.

While Enda Kenny is no doubt focusing on the meeting with Europe's most powerful politician.

However, part of his mind may also be on what awaits him upon his return from Berlin.

Sunday Independent

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