Sunday 26 May 2019

New money beats old money in Fine Gael as Big Phil chalks up a third Taoiseach

EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan Picture: Collins
EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan Picture: Collins

Fionnán Sheahan

Fair play to Cute Auld Phil all the same. That's a third Fine Gael leader who owes him an enormous debt of gratitude for making it to the Taoiseach's office by fending off internal challenges.

The incompetence of the opponents each time helped.

First, there was John Bruton and the heave in February 1994 by Charlie Flanagan, Jim Higgins, Jim O'Keeffe and Alan Shatter.

Michael Lowry, Ivan Yates, Phil Hogan and Enda Kenny were Bruton's crack team.

The legend goes that Hogan sent the late Liam Burke into the rebel camp.

The Cork North-Central TD was trusted as he had shared an office with Hogan. "Find out everything they're f***in' up to, Burkey," Hogan told the Silver Fox.

The heave was put down.

By the end of the year, Bruton was Taoiseach.

Sixteen years later, Kenny was under siege from Richard Bruton's putsch as Hogan rallied the troops.

Yates was off the pitch and predicting Kenny's demise from the fence.

Hogan knew differently.

Lowry was gone too. Yet with remarkable perspicacity, he was able to forecast Hogan's moves during idle chitchat outside the Dáil.

Hogan was happy to say who was backing Kenny, even if they weren't declaring.

It kept fellas on their toes.

Some of those he was laying claim to weren't even supporting Kenny, but it cast suspicions.

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Throw up the smoke.

Keep them guessing.

Actually, Bruton was offered valuable advice from a party TD with cunning.

Damien English brought John Deasy into a meeting of Bruton supporters in the LH2000 wing of Leinster House.

There was consternation as Deasy was regarded as too troublesome.

The Waterford TD sat quietly as English said: "Let's hear what he has to say."

Like Hogan, Deasy understood the base instincts of his party colleagues. It's not just about promises of ministerial preferment.

Lower down the foodchain, some people want a constituency divide that won't be too hard on them in a general election, or that there'll be no running mate on their turf, or that there'll be a Seanad nomination if it all goes wrong. Even knowing that their call will be taken can be a bonus.

Deasy told Bruton there were 14 TDs and senators who would decide the contest and would want guarantees.

Bruton refused to cajole.

"Well, then you're not going to win," Deasy declared, knowing the other side would have no qualms.

The Hogan-Kenny camp was direct in its tactics.

On the morning of the heave, one windy backbencher was spotted pinned up against a wall with a Hogan supporter wagging a finger in his face warning about the consequences.

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And another nervous party TD was reminded that not having someone else on the ticket might suit him best if he wanted to be re-elected.

Kenny was Taoiseach nine months later.

Leo Varadkar learned from the experience.

Hogan's handprints from Brussels are all over his Fine Gael leadership campaign.

Apart from Varadkar's very public trip to Brussels a month ago, where he was chaperoned around by the European Commissioner, Hogan was in regular contact with the future Taoiseach, offering strategic advice.

The blitz of early endorsements was straight from the Big Phil playbook.

Hogan's apprentice from the June 2010 heave, Paul Kehoe, was also discreetly in his kitchen cabinet.

Varadkar succeeded where Bruton failed seven years earlier, by chalking up a winning lead on the first day.

Kate O'Connell's summation of "choirboys singing for their supper" was hugely accurate.

Varadkar was willing to do what it took to win. His first problem will be sating the appetites of those backers.

Varadkar needed something special to pull off this takeover of Fine Gael.

As illustrated in the votes of the party membership, traditional Fine Gael didn't want him as the leader.

The descendants of Michael Collins and Garret FitzGerald even came out against him and a former leader broke with convention by backing Coveney.

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Fine Gael is a conservative organisation, where breeding really matters. In the present Cabinet, a third of the ministers hail from party dynasties.

Coveney was born into Fine Gael, Varadkar chose it.

Coveney is old money, Varadkar is new money.

The choice was between the reassuring stability and radical reform.

Varadkar broke the hegemony. With his leadership comes change.

His challenge is not just to show he represents people of all views and backgrounds in the country - but in Fine Gael too.

Irish Independent

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