Friday 18 January 2019

Fionnan Sheahan: Enda Kenny, from a political corpse to a political zombie

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said he will not lead Fine Gael into another general election. Picture Credit : Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said he will not lead Fine Gael into another general election. Picture Credit : Frank McGrath
Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

You've got to hand it to the Independents. In the space of four months, they've arguably done more to heal the lasting rivalries of the Civil War than efforts over the previous 93 years.

The various tantrums thrown by the ministers in the Independent Alliance have resulted in Fianna Fáil emerging as the responsible element of the complicated Coalition arrangements. The supply and confidence arrangement, where Fianna Fáil stays out of Government but votes to keep it in office, is working as smoothly as anyone could expect. It's even prompting some ministers in Fine Gael to think of the unthinkable: coalition with Fianna Fáil.

Assuming there is no enormous shift towards one or the other party, which can't be ruled out given the volatility of the electorate, the alternative after the next general election is either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil being propped up by Independents.

Is there any reason to believe Fianna Fáil would fare any better, even with a more familiar gene pool of Mattie McGrath, Noel Grealish and Michael and Danny Healy-Rae?

Once you divide the voters between those who wish to vote for parties and candidates who want to be in power, and those who vote for candidates to perennially protest or solely make a contribution from the opposition benches, then it's not that big a leap for the electorate if a functioning government is the desired outcome. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would fight the next election based upon getting the maximum support for their own policy platforms.

After keeping up their side of the bargain, the Fianna Fáil leadership is now reasonably asking Fine Gael to get its house in order and reminding the voters this is what they asked for by swinging so heavily towards Independents in the General Election.

But the instability caused by a series of crises of conscience of Independent ministers is certainly raising questions about how long the administration can last. The Independents are also - perhaps inadvertently - damaging the authority of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, particularly within his own party. Privately, Fine Gael ministers warn the Independents about how far they can push it as they will topple Kenny from within his own ranks.

With Kenny gone, the lifespan of the Coalition could be further shortened. His replacement is unlikely to be as tolerant of the Independents' carry-on.

Shane Ross rather cruelly labelled Kenny a "political corpse" following the General Election. Albeit right at the time, Kenny is back from the dead, ironically with the help of Ross. Kenny is more a political zombie now: not quite the presence he was before and susceptible to easily being finished off.

Since his poor performance in the election, Kenny has been on borrowed time. He admits he won't lead the party into the next election and says he has a "process" in mind for a respectable handover.

The patience of his backbenchers wears thin.

The next Fine Gael leader will, for the first time, have a mandate from across the party, rather than just the TDs, senators and MEPs.

Under new rules, grassroots members will have a vote in the leadership contest. The electoral college is broken into three parts: 65pc for members of the parliamentary party; 25pc for the ordinary members; and 10pc for councillors.

This process would take at the very least three weeks to complete. And the new system does pose a problem: what if you need a quick result, due to an imminent election?

This dilemma was certainly on the radar during March and April as Fine Gael struggled to put a government together and it looked like the people would have to go to the polls again.

In the event of another trip to the Áras, Kenny made it clear - and it was made clear to him - he wouldn't be leading the party in the campaign.

Fine Gael ministers tacitly floated a secret plan to elect a new leader within the confines of the timescale of a snap election.

Senior party figures were worried about the time it would take to give every member a say. So the plan hatched was to informally keep the election to the members of the parliamentary party.

Fine Gael TDs, senators and MEPs would meet quickly and vote for a leader. From there, rather than going on to have the votes of the grassroots, the losers of the parliamentary party round would drop out. The sole remaining candidate would become leader, thereby negating the need to go to the wider membership. Of course, this Queensbury Rules arrangement would need a clear-cut result so the runners-up wouldn't feel they could make up the lost ground among the grassroots and councillors.

The plan is not without its flaws. However, ministers told this newspaper it is still viewed as the best option available if there is an election before the handover.

Irish Independent

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