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Brand Kenny takes a battering over botched handling of the McNulty affair

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The late John Kelly used to say Fine Gael couldn't walk past a sleeping dog without giving it a kick. Old habits, it seems, die hard. At the moment, Taoiseach Enda Kenny just can't resist prodding somnolent canines.

The debacle of John McNulty's appointment to the board of Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) - and, in almost the same breath, his nomination for the Seanad - is just the latest example, but potentially it's the most dangerous.

It has turned into the perfect storm for the coalition.

It won't be enough to sink the government, but it has done serious damage to brand Kenny. And the mood within the Fine Gael parliamentary party at the moment is a mix of exasperation and barely-concealed fury, with some prominent figures - possibly attention seekers - breaking ranks to openly criticise the way this political banana skin has been handled.

Heather Humphreys is taking some of the flak - TDs believe she should simply have said "No" to whoever proposed McNulty's appointment to the IMMA board.

It was certainly a baptism of fire for Enda's new Minister for Arts and Culture.

But, in the main, the finger of blame is being pointed at the Taoiseach.

And not just by Waterford TD John Deasy, who has long been disillusioned with Kenny and has made no secret of the fact. Most TDs wouldn't go as far as Deasy did on radio on Thursday, when he savaged the leader, but many concur with the general sentiments.

In the corridors of Leinster House, whispered questions are being asked about the botched handling of the affair. In particular, they wonder how the top brass of the Fine Gael party thought they were going to get away with such a blatant stroke of appointing McNulty to the IMMA board and then - days later - rolling him out as the Government nominee for the Cultural and Education panel for the Seanad?

As if nobody was going to notice what was going on.

Why also didKenny go out on a limb for a man who had failed to be elected to the local council and who hasn't a prayer of being elected in the next general election?

The handling of the matter since the story broke in the Irish Independent has also irritated Fine Gael deputies. They believe the Tweedledum and Tweedledee routine from Kenny and Humphreys - with the Taoiseach saying he had nothing to do with the IMMA appointment and his minister saying she had nothing to do with the Seanad nomination - is simply not tenable.

Humphreys is a popular figure in the parliamentary party and TDs say she is a very competent politician. However, her performance in the Seanad, and her subsequent dealings with the media, have been painful to watch.

Once again questions are being aired about the criteria Kenny uses for ministerial appointments and what one TD privately described as "the absence of a meritocracy" in Fine Gael.

The best guess around Leinster House is that ultimately this controversy will die down. With the ballot papers now issued, it's difficult to see a scenario where McNulty pulls out of the Seanad contest. And, with Labour onside, the opposition calls for a postponement of the election are unlikely to be met - it's doubtful if it can even be legally done.

But the damage to Enda Kenny has been serious, not least with women voters angered by the decision to overlook three female candidates. The man who promised "new politics" and an end to cronyism has been implicated - in the eyes of the electorate at least - in a Haughey-era Fianna Fail-style stroke.

It's all making FG TDs distinctly restless. Questions are now being asked about the party leadership's capacity to win the next general election. No Fine Gael-led Government has ever been returned to power. With the economy definitely on the up, there is a golden opportunity to end that streak. But TDs worry defeat will be grabbed from the jaws of victory.

One FG deputy said yesterday he could never understand how Fine Gael and Labour had lost the 1997 General Election with the economy going so well but, after this week, he could begin to understand. The worry is that the McNulty mess is just the latest in a series of errors - medical cards, the crisis at the Department of Justice and the very public slapping down of Leo Varadkar to name just a few.

There is also concern that the departures of Phil Hogan and Frank Flannery have left the party light on nous and strategic guile at the top.

Kenny's chief of staff, Mark Kennelly, is regarded as very able, but TDs worry he is micromanaging and taking too much on. Ministers, they claim, find it hard to access Kenny. Little wonder then that the Taoiseach cuts a somewhat isolated figure of late. His position is not under threat, but there's no doubt the number of malcontents among FG ranks are growing.

One strong Kenny supporter last week privately posed the rhetorical question "does Fine Gael know how to win a second term?" The Taoiseach needs to start demonstrating he has the right answer to that question. Quickly.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent