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Kenny to quit as FG leader but stay on as Taoiseach? That's just bonkers


Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke

'A sitting Taoiseach is hard shifted' goes the old line - and it's never seemed truer than with Enda Kenny. After the general election, there was much talk of Mr Kenny going within weeks, possibly during the summer recess. Then it was after the Budget. And, before we knew it, it had stretched out to next April (by which point he would pass out John A Costello to become Fine Gael's longest serving Taoiseach, a fitting point to bow out).

In the past few days, a new stalling tactic has emerged, with the line being made "privately by Fine Gael TDs" apparently that Kenny could stay on as Taoiseach for a period, possibly even up to the general election, but stand down as leader of Fine Gael.

It's a bonkers idea which cannot be allowed to happen. But it surely strengthens the suspicion that the Taoiseach has no intention of voluntarily going anywhere soon.

It's true that the notion of a Taoiseach not being the leader of the main governing party is not entirely without precedent. In 1948, Clann na Poblachta didn't want Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy to head up the proposed inter-party government, for reasons dating back to his role in the Civil War. Mulcahy, realising he was an obstacle to a historic government formation, gallantly stepped aside, allowing a reluctant Costello to become Taoiseach.

It also briefly happened in early 2011 when an embattled Brian Cowen stood down as Fianna Fáil leader - succeeded by Micheál Martin - but remained on as Taoiseach for six weeks until Enda Kenny assumed office.

But those examples were exceptional cases. Kenny isn't an obstacle to a government being formed like in '48. Nor is there a general election coming in a matter of weeks, as was the case five and a half years ago. Besides, the chaos of 2011 is hardly a good benchmark for this government.

The argument perhaps could be (and, no doubt, has been) made that Kenny's departure as Taoiseach could have a destabilising impact on the Government. However, Fianna Fáil has been clear that its deal for three budgets is not dependent on Kenny being Taoiseach.

The optics of the whole thing would be hugely questionable. We would be left with a Taoiseach who not only presided over the loss of over two dozen seats in the general election, but was now unwanted by his own parliamentary party. Why else would he not be leader of Fine Gael?

To put it bluntly, if he's not good enough for Fine Gael TDs, how can he be deemed good enough for the country? Whatever the reasoning or logic behind it, the perception would be of a Taoiseach clinging to power, with a theoretical mandate, simply for the sake of power.

Leo Varadkar was completely right to dismiss the idea as being "not credible". He and the other senior Fine Gael figures have been very careful not to say anything that might be deemed to be pressurising Kenny. The party wants to allow its Taoiseach to go in a dignified manner at a time of his choosing - fair enough. He's earned that right.

But there are limits. Varadkar makes a valid point that, if the posts of Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael were held separately, it would only be a matter of time before there was disagreement or conflict. Kenny and a new FG leader might, for example, have very different ideas on holding the line on public sector pay or cutting USC. The Government and the main government party would be singing off different hymn sheets. It could get incredibly messy.

Kenny's position in that scenario would be closer to that of the US president and our system is just not built that way.

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Why anyone would suggest it beggars belief. To be fair, there is no suggestion that Kenny has been pushing such a scenario. But his body language is certainly not that of a man preparing to make way for a successor.

One has to ask 'why?' He has had a good innings. He can walk away with his party and the country in much better places than they were when he took over. He would be cheered to the rafters and lauded a hero by the Fine Gael parliamentary party if he stood down in the coming weeks. In politics, that's about as good as it gets.

But, if he doesn't, and tries to push matters beyond the spring, he risks undermining that legacy and potentially badly splitting his party, because things inevitably will come to a head.

The public has largely had enough. A poll at the weekend showed his satisfaction rating down at 29pc (compared to 48pc for Micheál Martin). More tellingly, FG deputies have made it crystal clear they don't want him to lead them into another general election - they're better judges of the public mood than any opinion poll.

There's also the question of what he can still bring to the table. He says he's got his mojo back but where's the evidence of that? It's an exhausting job, even for someone of Kenny's undoubted work ethic. Six years is surely long enough for anyone, particularly somebody who looks fit and healthy enough to enjoy a long, active life after politics.

There was much talk about the importance of the Taoiseach's experience and contacts post-Brexit. But the response from the Government to date has been underwhelming - there was also a serious misjudgement in raising the idea of a cross-border forum on Brexit before running it by the DUP. And it could be years before the Brexit process is complete.

The arguments for a transfer of power from Kenny and Michael Noonan to the next generation of Coveney, Varadkar, Donohoe, Harris and Doherty are surely far more compelling.

But the Taoiseach may not see it like that. And in politics, ownership is nine-tenths of the law. Enda the road? Believe it when you actually see it because, unless he decides otherwise, he'll be hard shifted.

Shane Coleman presents Newstalk Breakfast, weekdays from 7am.