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Wednesday 16 October 2019

Timing would be key if Paschal were to take reins

Paschal Donohoe with actor Gary Egan launching the Ghostbus in Dublin in 2014
Paschal Donohoe with actor Gary Egan launching the Ghostbus in Dublin in 2014

Paschal Donohoe keeps insisting he is not interested in replacing Enda Kenny. So why does his name keep recurring as a potential Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach? Are his emphatic statements seen as an "Irish refusal" which really means "ask me again?"

The doubts centre on a view within Fine Gael that he could find it difficult to resist a direct request to contest the leadership from supporters of Kenny, and his own close colleague, the Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

Privately, he says that his job as Public Expenditure Minister involves half a dozen meetings every single week with Cabinet colleagues about their departmental budgets. He does not want to be seen as "playing games", manoeuvring himself towards the "big job" when his sole focus should be the public-spending decisions.

His stance may also be influenced by having two young children and the demands of a full-on leadership role.

But the reality is that Donohoe, aged 42 and with 13 years' experience in elected politics, is still seen right now by parliamentary party colleagues as a potential leader.

Leo Varadkar is tipped as the most likely to succeed. A longer campaign might favour Simon Coveney who cannot be discounted. Frances Fitzgerald is seen as a long shot.

"But if Paschal Donohoe changed his mind, and seriously contested the leadership, he could win," one Fine Gael TD insists.

Having abandoned a lucrative business career for politics, he is also seen as somebody who has "soldiered" to learn the political trade. His career progress was relatively quick, but not without reverses which helped him learn.

Elected to Dublin City Council in 2004, he lost two Dáil elections before he got there in February 2011. He became junior minister for EU affairs in July 2013, a full cabinet minister for Transport and Tourism in July 2014, and finally got the big one in May 2016 when he was appointed to Public Expenditure.

At pre-Cabinet meetings of the Fine Gael ministers, he sits on the opposite side of the table, alongside the Taoiseach and Finance Minister, Michael Noonan. This trio face all the other party ministerial colleagues.

There is precedent which feeds the idea of Kenny's closest supporters, especially if Kenny was forced out, asking Donohoe to enter the subsequent leadership contest. That is exactly what Kenny himself did in February 2001, when John Bruton was forced out of the leadership.

During the failed heave against himself in June 2010, he warned rebels that his then-rival Richard Bruton would face a contest against a "Kennyite" if he was forced to quit the leadership.

Asked about Donohoe as a potential leader after last October's Budget, Noonan, offered: "He certainly has all the qualities of a future leader. But the timing is very important."

If the Taoiseach and the Finance Minister asked Donohoe to go for leadership, could he refuse? A half-hearted bid for the top job could be permanently damaging.

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