Thursday 21 March 2019

Analysis: Taoiseach may yet emulate Bertie Ahern's long goodbye

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with staff during an announcement by recruitment website Indeed of 500 new jobs at its Dublin headquarters yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with staff during an announcement by recruitment website Indeed of 500 new jobs at its Dublin headquarters yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney
John Downing

John Downing

Bertie Ahern was just back from the St Patrick's Day doings at the White House when he decided, with a little help from Brian Cowen, it was high time that he quit.

In fact, he was due in the High Court on Tuesday, April 6, 2008, for a hearing relating to his ongoing battles with the Mahon Tribunal. But instead he called a surprise press conference at Government Buildings and announced he would quit as both Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil. He said the tribunal's focus on his finances was too big a distraction.

But extraordinarily, Mr Ahern's resignation only took effect a full calendar month and some days afterwards, on May 6, 2008. The "long goodbye" turned into several glittering laps of honour, which included an address to the joint US Houses of Congress on April 30, and a hugely symbolic meeting with Ian Paisley at the Battle of the Boyne site in Co Meath.

Soon after his announcement, it transpired that Mr Ahern had been approached by his loyal lieutenant, Mr Cowen, just days after his return from Washington. Mr Cowen had himself just returned from a break in Vietnam, tagged on to an official visit there.

Mr Cowen's eventual takeover as Taoiseach gave Fianna Fáil a very brief fillip - which in a funny way presaged a continual downward slide over the coming two-and-a-half years for the Offalyman's ill-starred stewardship. In mid-May 2008, a tns-MRBI poll put the party on a rare popularity rating of 42pc. Things came back to earth with a bang on June 12, 2008, when voters rejected the EU Lisbon Treaty referendum. And from there on it was all downhill.

But let's not digress too far from our purpose here, which is to examine parallels between Mr Ahern's glorious exit, accompanied by very complimentary assessments, and the position in which Mr Kenny now finds himself.

Bertie Ahern. Photo: PA
Bertie Ahern. Photo: PA

There are some key differences between the two case histories. Not least of these is that unlike Mr Ahern, Mr Kenny has never, ever, been the focus of scrutiny over his personal finances. Despite dark mutterings from some Opposition TDs this week, the criticisms of Mr Kenny have been mainly about his attention to important work in hand, and his overall poor focus on the difficult job of heading the Government.

Now, albeit for rather different reasons, most politicians across all parties at Leinster House deem that Mr Kenny - like Mr Ahern in spring 2008 - has been "timed out of the job" and must go.

It is important to note that Mr Cowen has only rarely and sparingly adverted to that fateful meeting in late March 2008. The pair were spotted in Mr Ahern's favoured haunt, the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, deep in conversation.

Mr Cowen publicly conceded that they also had other discussions on the issue. But he always insisted that the final decision was made entirely and solely by Mr Ahern. That is consistent with Mr Cowen's unswerving, lifelong loyalty to Fianna Fáil and to its leader of the day.

It is all further reinforced by Mr Ahern's strong signal, soon after he won a third consecutive general election in May 2007, that Mr Cowen would in due course be his favoured successor. All of that strongly suggested that the Ahern-Cowen meeting was an uncomplicated session of plain-speaking without any fear of loaded agendas.

The striking thing, in making these limited comparisons, is that there is no comparable "honest broker" in Fine Gael who can be readily identified as well-placed to approach Mr Kenny and lay things on the line. In the wake of the week-long debacle over the handling of the McCabe whistleblower inquiry, even Kenny loyalists concede that it is time he announced a timeline for his departure.

The two frontrunners to succeed him, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, are hardly well-placed to present themselves as disinterested personnel. Finance Minister Michael Noonan's name comes to mind, but he is known to be keen to continue in office himself, something which would be in doubt in a post-Kenny environment.

In the history of these things, there are other less pleasant ways of approaching what is always an unpalatable task. In 1992, a "gang of four" Fianna Fáil TDs approached Charlie Haughey and bluntly and with success told him time was up as party leader and Taoiseach. In 1994, another "gang of four" approached then-Fine Gael leader in opposition John Bruton and tried to deliver a similar time-to-go message. It backfired.

Mr Bruton, helped in no small measure by one Enda Kenny, saw off that heave and became Taoiseach thanks to an extraordinary turn of events, before that year was out.

All of that brings us neatly on to the events of June 2010 when Mr Kenny emulated that feat of Mr Bruton's 16 years earlier. The botched heave by Kenny's key lieutenants, and his total victory, was the defining moment in the Taoiseach's career and in the contemporary Fine Gael party. Its effects are still felt today and set the bar very high for whoever really wishes to succeed him.

There is a growing assumption among many in Fine Gael that Mr Kenny must depart sometime soon after his expected shamrock visit to President Donald Trump on St Patrick's Day. This is the real parallel with the Bertie Ahern exit story.

Many in the party would favour giving their leader of almost 15 years, and two-time Taoiseach, a decent chunk of time to complete his exit.

There has been heavy criticism of him over various periods of his six-year tenure heading the Government.

Yet seen in the round, there were many positive features of the "Kenny era". However, the exit issue must first be broached by the party in which its TDs and senators are becoming increasingly disenchanted.

The most recent opinion poll in the 'Sunday Times' last week, which put Fianna Fáil on 32pc, had left Fine Gael reeling.

Mr Kenny's subsequent calamitous performance has only compounded all this. His inability to tidily deliver the McCabe inquiry has left the entire Government looking scattered and inept.

Mr Kenny is truly timed out. But it is not clear yet how this one will end.

He could do worse than reflect on the long goodbye strategy of Mr Ahern of April 2008. It gave Mr Ahern a deal of kudos and dignity and it also offered a boost to his party's fortunes.

It all seems a preferable conclusion to others which could emerge over the coming weeks.

Irish Independent

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