Wednesday 21 March 2018

Rebel frontbenchers come into the open

Fiach Kelly

IT was raw politics in all its filth and glory. Nine of the Fine Gael frontbench strode on to the plinth outside Leinster House yesterday, moments before they knifed their leader and threatened, yet again, to tear their party apart at the seams.

When you counted 'em and clocked 'em as they stood under the midday sun, the inescapable conclusion was the game looked grim for Enda Kenny.

The rebels were led by Denis Naughten, who Kenny's supporters were relying on as "sound" at the weekend. Not so anymore.

Leo Varadkar, darling of the party conferences and FG's shining star since the last election; Michael Creed, the effective agriculture spokesman; and Brian Hayes and Simon Coveney, long time malcontents, all stepped forward with their assassin's blades unsheathed.

Also there were Olwyn Enright, Billy Timmins, Olivia Mitchell and transport spokesman Fergus O'Dowd.

The rebels, who met with would-be leader Richard Bruton in a west Dublin hotel yesterday morning, were making confident noises as they arrived in Leinster House.

"It's been done," one said. "It's now just a matter of when it's finished."

But they were all completely gazumped by the party leader. Kenny, so often maligned and derided, was putting up a hell of a fight, adopting a scorched- earth policy Charlie Haughey would have been proud of.

The rebels walked into a frontbench meeting scheduled for 11am yesterday expecting Kenny to listen as they spelt out, one by one, why he should no longer stay.

Instead, he dissolved the frontbench, accused some of them of not pulling their weight and walked from the room.

They asked Kenny to come back and listen to them. But why would he come back to listen to a group of people telling him to get lost?

The man they privately ridiculed in the past as leading them into "oblivion" was now running tactical rings around the half of his top team determined to oust him.

The nine then addressed the press, and claimed they had the support of more frontbenchers yet to break cover.

"We're disappointed that he didn't give the members of the frontbench the opportunity to speak to him," Naughten said.

"The majority of the frontbench, I can sadly say, isn't supportive of the party leader and we believe that is replicated throughout the parliamentary party.

"We are putting our political careers on the line in what we believe is in the interests of this country and in the best interests of the Fine Gael party."

The prospect of another contender entering the race was kept alive, with Naughten saying that there was "no leadership contest at this stage".

Another frontbencher in the Kenny camp, when asked if he would run against Bruton, said: "We'll see how this plays out."

And then, when the blood had been shed, it was time for the dirt to be spread. Both factions parked the slurry trucks right on each other's lawns.

The rebels lined up to dump all over Kenny's economic credentials, with an agreed line parroted by Varadkar, O'Dowd and others.

"When the phone rings at 3am with the call from the Central Bank to the Taoiseach's home, I would like to see Richard Bruton picking up that phone," O'Dowd said.

On the opposite side of Leinster House, Kenny loyalists Paul Kehoe, the chief whip, and 'Big Phil' Hogan, environment spokesman, said they were confident Kenny could prevail at the now crucial parliamentary party meeting tomorrow, when he faces a confidence vote.

Hogan described the heave as "embarrassing" and said ordinary party members probably thought it was a bad dream.

Other Kenny supporters accused Bruton of disappearing at crucial moments during the past few weeks and described the rebels as a small elite clique.

Meanwhile, ambitious TDs were curling up to Bruton like cats beside the fireplace. Lucinda Creighton, also previously unhappy with Kenny's leadership, was chatting happily to the challenger in the corridors.

In the Dail chamber, Kenny struck a tragic figure as he spoke in the confidence debate on Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Kenny initiated the debate last week in the wake of the banking reports, but it was now overshadowed by his own strife.

Beside him no longer sat Bruton, but Dr James Reilly, who has been batting hard for Kenny in the last few days. The other rebels were scattered across the Fine Gael benches.

But Bruton and Kenny did share a handshake and a bit of friendly chat in the chamber before the debate began.

"There's no knives out," joked FG Cavan-Monaghan TD Seymour Crawford.

It was also as if Fianna Fail TDs felt it cruel to taunt Kenny and were quietly respectful as he spoke. When Dick Roche told Kenny his party didn't have confidence in him, he was quickly shushed by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.

The lines Kenny taunted the Taoiseach with could just as easily apply to him. "How can you claim that you have any moral authority to sit in that seat?" Kenny asked.

But there was one line in his Dail script he didn't deliver, but which he may increasingly hear ringing in his own ears over the next few days: "Only one honourable action remains to you. Go. Go now. . . In God's name, go."

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News