Friday 18 January 2019

Fionnan Sheahan: Fine Gael's moral drift catches up with Enda Kenny at last

Taoiseach Enda Kenny arriving at the Corporate Tax Conference at Dublin Castle yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taoiseach Enda Kenny arriving at the Corporate Tax Conference at Dublin Castle yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Fionnán Sheahan

The Fianna Fáil barstool boys gave Noel Rock a right going over.

Less than a year after repeatedly nominating Enda Kenny to become Taoiseach, the youngest Fine Gael TD was wielding the axe on his party leader.

After a seismic Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting and tame Dáil vote of no confidence on Wednesday night, Mr Kenny retired to the Dáil Members' Bar for half-an-hour. As he departed for home, Mr Rock scurried out the door after him. On his return, the Fianna Fáil ranks heckled him with catcalls of "30 pieces of silver" and "Judas". There wasn't much of a defence put up by his Fine Gael colleagues present.

Mr Rock's role in the protracted Dáil votes to try to put a government together last year merely recalls how close Mr Kenny came to departing as Fine Gael leader last March.

After the second Dáil vote on forming a government was lost in early April, senior Fine Gael figures began making a contingency plan for a snap election. As Mr Kenny had committed to not leading the party into another general election - and his performance was so bad during the campaign - having a new leader in place was a top priority.

Fine Gael internal rules dictate giving a vote to the party's entire 20,000 members in the leadership election, a process which could take up to three weeks. The shortcut envisaged was to limit the vote to just the party TDs and senators.

The solution was to convince the losers of the parliamentary party vote to drop out, thereby negating the wider consultation.

A senior official from party headquarters was tasked with ringing leadership contenders to sound them out. He didn't quite get agreement, but he didn't get objections to the notion.

Bizarrely, when this snap election scenario was reported in the Irish Independent, Mr Kenny's delusional acolytes denied it ever happened. But Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty has also confirmed the back-up plan to 'The Irish Times'.

The negotiations on a Programme for Government and the formation of a coalition left the Taoiseach drained. Mr Kenny now appears exhausted - again. His mishandling of the controversy around Garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe has brought a number of his weaknesses to the fore.

Mr Kenny has a troubling habit of going walkabout when he goes off script.

Even staunch loyalists were appalled by the hames he made of his 'imagined' conversation with Children's Minister Katherine Zappone on her meeting with Mr McCabe and how it precipitated his troubles. "He f***ed up famously. It's quite sad," a minister observed.

How exactly his advisers allowed him to go on RTÉ so badly prepared, without having clear answers ready, and then walk into a slaughter in the Dáil is a question being asked in the party. It's being put down to a case of 'bubbleitis', where those inside Government Buildings lose touch with the outside world.

Moreover, what has finally caught up with Mr Kenny is his innate conservatism. He is not and never has been a great reformer who would sweep change through the system.

His failure to get to grips with the Garda culture has haunted his administration.

In many ways, he is the last man standing from a controversy that has dogged his term in power. He too is about to be toppled.

Fine Gael can't blame Fianna Fáil for this one. The moral drift has been on display in other ways. The disgusting stunt from the Kenny regime to try to plant party crony John McNulty in the Seanad by appointing him to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art proved Fine Gael was no better than what it replaced.

Now the party faces into a potentially divisive leadership changeover. Mr Kenny has been given breathing space to decide upon his own time of departure.

He would be silly to listen to any diehards who believe he can escape this time. And he has to beware of friends with vested interests, who know they too are for the boot once he is gone.

The mood has changed and the room is not with him.

Frances Fitzgerald is also the collateral damage in this affair, so the leadership will definitely pass to the next generation. The tag-teaming of Mr Kenny by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney means neither will be responsible for sticking in the knife.

It's viewed as a sign the Young Turks will work together, regardless of the outcome of the race.

"It won't end up like Charlie Haughey and George Colley," an aide observed.

Irish Independent

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