Monday 22 July 2019

FG's 'non-turnips' gather behind Leo

The leadership genie is out of the bottle just as Kenny is looking increasingly isolated

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Transport Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Transport Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar.

John Drennan

ALL of the attention may have been on Alan Shatter, but, in the long run, Leo Varadkar's demarche may be the catalyst for a far more serious change in the political power dynamic than Alan's Adventures in Wonderland.

'Dear Leader' Enda Kenny in particular will be fretting about far more critical issues than young Leo giving such cheek to our elder statesman of a justice minister.

Since the election, on the surface at least, it appeared that the age where Fine Gael had been the permanent family at war in Irish politics had ended. But, fundamental schisms never fully heal and it was clear last week that Fine Gael's eternal civil war away hasn't gone away, you know.

On one level, it would be surprising if it had, for Fine Gael has been a combination of two parties since the Sixties. The dominant tribe has generally been the FF Lite wing of the party. However, positions taken in the Civil War, dynastic reasons or their status as large rather than small farmers, or hospital consultants rather than builders, or barristers rather than bricklayers meant they ended up in Fine Gael. In the Sixties, though, those with a strong ideological bent, who realised advancement within FF was impossible and the advancement of Labour even more impossible, attempted to use Fine Gael as their political succubus.

Intriguingly, in this regard, FG attracted ideologues of the left and the right, for while Garret FitzGerald and Declan Costello attempted to use the party as a template for a left wing vision of how Ireland could be re-imagined, Michael McDowell attempted to chart a more right wing approach.

Sadly, despite occasional periods of strength, these 'mongrel foxes' – to borrow a phrase from Liam Cosgrave – were always ultimately 'chopped up' by the FG pack of orthodox rural TDs.

This internal war reached its apotheosis in 2010 when Enda, in alliance with the rural backbenchers, who were dismissed as political 'turnips' by the idealist knight chevaliers, 'chopped up' Richard Bruton, Leo Varadkar and all the rest who attempted to take him out at the verge of Government Buildings.

It was a battle conducted with a lethal ferocity, for unlike other leadership heaves which were mere frolics, conducted almost to pass the time in the dreary lands of Opposition, this took place in the shadow of power.

In the aftermath of his victory, Enda was advised that the best way of drawing the sting of his enemies would be to keep them close. Some sort of appearance of this policy was followed; though not with much enthusiasm, as Simon Coveney, who spent almost as much time inside as outside the 'Dear Leader's' camp during the putsch and Leo made it to Cabinet, along with Richard 'the lesser' Bruton.

When it came to Lucinda Creighton and Brian Hayes, high profile junior ministries with the possibility of preferment in a decade was as much as Enda could stomach.

Intriguingly, despite Kenny's ongoing anger with his 'reconciled rebels', the Cabinet performance of the Taoiseach's allies meant it soon became clear the succession would be fought out among those who had attempted to take out Enda.

Back in 2011, this would not have been a worry for Enda had surrounded himself with the special troika of Alan Shatter, James Reilly and Phil Hogan, who had stood with Enda at Fine Gael's battle of the Alamo.

There was Michael Noonan too, who, like many a man before him, did better by not being involved in the shooting, when peace finally came.

Sadly the landscape has changed since those salad days and none of the shifts have been in Enda's favour. The suffering of his own special ones has been a source of no small degree of harm, but it has been the fate of his internal opponents that has provided Enda with his greatest troubles.

Richard Bruton, like Winston in Orwell's 1984, pledged allegiance to benevolent Big Brother Enda. However, the soul of FG under Phil Hogan was not compatible with Lucinda remaining within the party while the somewhat more pragmatic Brian Hayes, suspecting that Enda's full forgiveness would come dripping slower than a stalactite, decided in favour of exile in Europe.

It might have appeared to be to Enda's benefit that the numbers aspiring to the FG succession had been whittled down to two. However, while many contenders bring competition and confusion, the reduction in numbers brings clarity.

In the case of FG, all the old fault lines are beginning to show again; for when it came to Shatter's troubles, Cute Old Phil and the Taoiseach fought the hardest for their troubled colleague. Noonan also weighed in, but, with the sort of directionless aggression whereby the minister is defending a colleague out of duty rather than choice.

The unbowed status of Leo though, rather than the semi-independent position of Noonan, provides Enda with his biggest difficulty.

Simon may be looking to the future but his positioning as the sort of blue-blooded party aristocrat who doesn't believe in anything more radical than respectability means he will not cause Enda too many political troubles. Leo, however, is the coming champion of that non-turnip wing of Fine Gael who does not believe the election result was the democratic revolution.

As the ideological wing of FG begin to silently gather behind Leo, things may start getting rocky for Enda. For now Kenny is in control of his party but the leadership genie has slipped out of the bottle just as the power base of an increasingly peripheral 'Dear Leader' has started to erode.

Suddenly, three years after Fine Gael's most spectacular election triumph, just as a big European job starts to sashay across the horizon, Enda is starting to look very isolated.

For now, having saved Ireland, Kenny has been playing hard to get over the prospect of becoming Angela Merkel's European manservant.

But, should internal strife between the still invisible Varadkar and Coveney factions accelerate, that offer might look a lot more attractive by the autumn.

Sunday Independent

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