Wednesday 22 November 2017

The long goodbye: Kenny rolls with the punches and sees off plotters for a second time

For two weeks they lined up to attack him but Enda Kenny dodged the blows, writes Philip Ryan

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Brian Hayes scuttled past a group of Fianna Fail TDs on his way into the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting in Leinster House last Wednesday night. The Fianna Fail lads were in great form. They were riding high in the opinion polls while their arch-rivals were imploding over the party's leadership. Life couldn't be better.

Hayes, a Fine Gael MEP, on the other hand had just jetted in from Brussels to attend a party meeting billed as the funeral of Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Niall Collins, who was among the group of Fianna Failers, couldn't resist jeering Hayes as he walked by.

"You couldn't get rid of him six years ago and now you're back to give it another go," Collins teased. Hayes continued on his way sheepishly. Hayes had been among the plotters seeking to oust Kenny in the failed heave in 2010 and was now returning to get a pitch-side view of the demise of Fine Gael's most successful leader. But, yet again, Kenny proved his credentials as a battle-hardened politician who is well able to take a few feeble punches from weak opposition.

For two weeks they lined up to attack him. Two weeks of backbenchers venting frustrations about being left behind and ignored by the Taoiseach despite their support. Two weeks of radio interviews, newspaper columns and public pronouncements by those who sought his head on a spike. In the midst of it all, a motion of no confidence was held to his throat like a rusted dagger and he was dared to flinch. The Taoiseach then watched his would-be successors - Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney - launch a pincer movement around his stronghold as their soldiers bayed for blood. Varadkar was the most militant.

In an ultimatum to Kenny last Saturday, the young prince demanded that the Taoiseach 'settle' the leadership issue or risk destabilising the party, Government, and lastly, the country.

Coveney followed Varadkar's lead and publicly stated he believed the Taoiseach would step down as Fine Gael leader soon after his return from a State visit to Washington to mark St Patrick's Day. He was sure to add that he was in no way putting any pressure on the Taoiseach despite all but naming the date he hoped he would be gone by.

This was all on Kenny's mind as he entered the parliamentary party meeting armed with only some speaking notes jotted down on a handful of cue cards. To a room of silence, the Taoiseach stared down his opponents and warned that "caucus and veiled threats are of no interest" to him. In a bullish 10-minute speech, Kenny told his party it was his decision not to contest the next election and it would be he who decides how he steps down.

He said "very few" people understand what it means to lead the largest party in Government and insisted he intends to "fulfil his obligations" while in office.

Kenny said he would travel to the US for St Patrick's Day and outline his intentions thereafter.

"I ask you for your trust on this matter," he added. The knife-wielding assassins re-sheathed their weapons and applauded the man they had come to kill.

After the meeting, his rivals immediately briefed that Kenny would be gone by Easter. They said a new leader would be in place soon after the celebration of Jesus rising from the tomb in Jerusalem and Fine Gael would once again be restored to its rightful glory.

However, they perhaps missed one essential section of Kenny's speech in which he highlighted how "complex and intense" Brexit negotiations would be once official talks begin next month.

In the Taoiseach's office they laughed at the "young pups" who dared question the leader while they discussed attending EU meetings well into May.

Their laughter was only matched by the cackles from Fianna Fail TDs falling through the corridors of Leinster House in convulsions as they watched another failed attempt to oust Kenny.

Meanwhile, as the drawbridge was pulled up in front of the Department of the Taoiseach for another few weeks or possibly months, the conspirators returned to their war rooms to plot their next move.

Varadkar and his generals are at an advanced stage. The Social Protection Minister's kitchen cabinet is a closely guarded secret due to the sensitivities of the battle ahead. They have been conspiring over coffee and pints since at least last year.

Junior Minister Eoghan Murphy is a central figure as is Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan. There are other significant politicians involved but not many. Certainly none of those who have spoken out against the Taoiseach in recent weeks are considered essential members of the team. Brian Murphy, Varadkar's special adviser, and Nick Miller, his media adviser, are part of the team tasked with making the minister a Taoiseach. Public Relations Institute of Ireland chief executive John Carroll, who was previously Varadkar's parliamentary assistant, is another key figure and someone who still has the minister's ear.

There are a number of other non-politicians involved with those in the know saying there is at least one household name. "Varadkar listens to a lot of voices," is what his team says.

Interestingly, this includes former Fine Gael chief strategist Frank Flannery, who was unceremoniously ousted from the party by Kenny over the Rehab charity scandal. Flannery is still influential in Fine Gael and his views are listened to across the party. He was even spotted calling into the party's headquarters on Mount Street in Dublin last week.

Varadkar's pack of baying wolves have been starved of power for too long and are now hungry for battle. Their sights are firmly set on Coveney and they will not be afraid to resort to underhand tactics. "Simon Coveney is earnest and toils away but there is little to show in terms of results when it comes to homelessness or housing," a senior player in camp said last week.

"If Varadkar produced as many action plans, launches and videos it would be seen as 'show' or claimed he was 'PR obsessed,'" the source added. There will also be a campaign mantra of 'a vote for Coveney is a vote for Kenny' as part of an attempt to tarnish the opposition with the failings of the past. It will be a dirty campaign and the mild-mannered image Coveney has cultivated will be put to the test by Varadkar's brand of warfare. Varadkar will seek to shore up support at a ministerial level and key to this will be an endorsement from Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe.

However, there's one area in which Coveney's team will have a clear advantage over Varadkar - money. They will have Coveney money, merchant prince money and lots of it. The Housing Minister's war office has only been in full operation since the beginning of the year. It includes Junior Housing Minister Damien English, chair of the housing committee Maria Bailey and Cork Senator Tim Lombard. Coveney's five brothers are always on hand for support and advice. Patrick, the CEO of Greencore, and Andrew, a hospital consultant, are the most active.

Another recent addition to the minister's team is Ciaran Conlan, a long-time Fine Gael strategist who was a central figure in the last general election and the campaign in 2011. At this stage, Conlan has only held talks with Coveney but the minister hopes to have him on his team when the contest eventually begins. Conlan's involvement does raise questions over the likelihood of Richard Bruton entering the race as his last job in Fine Gael was as the Education Minister's special adviser.

Coveney will present himself as a more middle-ground candidate opposed to the right-leaning Thatcherite polices of Varadkar. They will call for more State investment in services while he calls for less government in people's lives. The Housing Minister also hopes to rein in the support of Kenny loyalists with Finance Minister Michael Noonan at the top of their wish list. There is even a suggestion Noonan will be kept in Cabinet in return for his sage influence during the campaign.

For now, the conspirators can plot away while telling radio show hosts "there is currently no vacancy". But when the vacancy finally arises it will be followed by an ugly contest. Blood will be spilt, tears will be shed and life-long friendships will be destroyed. However, it will only happen when Kenny decides and those who believe otherwise should have spoken their piece when they had a chance.

Sunday Independent

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