Fine Gael are to "limit" Taoiseach Enda Kenny's media appearances in the General Election campaign as concern grows over his popularity, the Irish Independent has learned.
r Kenny's leadership has been brought into real focus as senior figures in Fine Gael admit his handling of recent controversies has damaged the party's electoral prospects.
Fine Gael TDs are also reporting negative feedback from voters in their constituencies over Mr Kenny's credibility in the wake of the departure of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and his failure to tackle the Irish Water controversy head on.
For the first time since being elected Taoiseach, some of Mr Kenny's own supporters have voiced concern over his leadership.
There have been no suggestions whatsoever that his position as Fine Gael leader will be challenged. However, party strategists favour a 'subtle sidelining' of Mr Kenny as the election draws near.
They want high-profile ministers Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney and Simon Harris to take "centre stage" as they have a better rapport with the public.
There is also an expectation that the Opposition will attack Mr Kenny's personal record in light of his handling of the John McNulty Seanad debacle among other issues.
Sources have said Mr Kenny's prominence in the election will be strictly controlled because of concern over his media performances and the effect he has on public sentiment.
"We need to ensure that the focus is solely on what Fine Gael can deliver in the future and not on controversies surrounding the Taoiseach," a senior Government figure told the Irish Independent.
A separate source involved in devising Fine Gael's strategy described Mr Kenny's popularity as a "real issue for the party", adding that his appearances will have to be "limited".
However, the Taoiseach will come under major pressure from the Opposition to take part in television and radio debates when the campaign swings into gear. These debates are frequently seen as Mr Kenny's biggest weakness.
The Mayo politician was widely criticised during the Seanad referendum campaign for refusing to engage in live debates.
The Government subsequently suffered an embarrassing defeat after voters chose to retain the Upper House.
As recently as January, Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin criticised Mr Kenny for refusing to take part in a live televised debate.
Mr Kenny's reliance on the strength of his ministerial team was evident during the recent controversy surrounding the fallout of the publication of the Fennelly Commission report.
The report found that his decision to send former Secretary General of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell to Mr Callinan's home late at night was the "immediate catalyst" for his departure.
As they attended Fine Gael's think-in in Adare, Co Limerick, several backbench TDs privately admitted that they are worried about Mr Kenny's public persona.
They fear the public now automatically associate Mr Kenny with controversy.
And one TD yesterday broke ranks to publicly rebuke the Taoiseach over his handling of the events that led to the departure of Martin Callinan.
Waterford TD John Deasy said Mr Callinan did not deserve what he "ultimately got", adding that the Fennelly Report gave people a "glimpse" of what Mr Kenny is like "behind closed doors".
"I'm not sure what Martin Callinan did wrong. Plenty of other people made mistakes, they didn't act when they should have. Callinan was perhaps tardy in giving information to people but he did inform them. So I'm not exactly sure he deserved what he ultimately got," Mr Deasy said.
He added: "I'm not a supporter of Enda Kenny and I haven't been. I think people got a glimpse of what he is actually like behind closed doors. Whether Martin Callinan deserved what he got people will make up their own mind. I think he probably didn't."
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has refused to commit to an abortion referendum ahead of the forthcoming General Election.
Mr Kenny said Fine Gael's election manifesto would not commit to holding a referendum on removing the controversial Eighth Amendment from the Constitution. The amendment protects the rights of the unborn and prevents the introduction of legislation to allow for abortions in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities.
Fine Gael's Coalition partner, the Labour Party, has insisted it will demand an abortion referendum if it is to return to Government.
Speaking at the Fine Gael think-in, the Taoiseach said he was not in "favour of abortion on demand" but was open to listening to arguments for changing the current laws.
"I have no intention of abolishing the Eighth Amendment without considering what it might be that might replace it," he said.