Delusional Kenny now seriously damaging FG
The Fine Gael leader's latest flirtation with Sinn Fein will prove a bridge too far for his leadership rivals, but it may be too late
The immediate effect of Sinn Fein's outward positional shift on entering government as a junior coalition partner with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail has been to put back on a fast track the end of Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach.
Last week Kenny repeatedly refused to rule out such a coalition, which led to conniptions in Fine Gael. Such was the outcry that yesterday he was forced into issuing a "clarification" statement ruling out such a coalition.
That he was forced to do so at all has made his position as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach look weaker still, to be point of being unsustainable for much longer.
But his initial refusal to rule out coalition with Sinn Fein should not really surprise: as has been said before, the man would do a deal with the devil to stay in power.
After the 2007 election, he attempted to reach out to Sinn Fein behind the scenes, only to be told by the Greens to do his own dirty work; he again flirted with Sinn Fein before the last election.
The Sunday Independent reported in February 2015 that Kenny had failed to clearly rule out coalition with Sinn Fein. At the time, all Fine Gael said was it had "no plans" to form such a coalition, a position that subsequently hardened.
As it happened, a FG/SF coalition did not materialise, not least because Sinn Fein had ruled out such an arrangement as contrary to its longer-term strategy to build towards power.
At the time, however, Fianna Fail's Willie O'Dea said of Enda Kenny: "The mask has slipped - a vote for Fine Gael is a vote for Sinn Fein and a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for Fine Gael."
Last week that comment seemed more prescient than ever after Kenny's pointed refusal to rule out a coalition with Sinn Fein.
As was also reported here recently, Kenny's borderline delusional confidence in his position as leader is now such that he actually fancies himself as a three-time successive Fine Gael Taoiseach.
This is as a direct consequence of timidity within the Fine Gael parliamentary party to remove as leader a man many privately believe to be past his sell-by date. The failure of Fine Gael TDs to grapple with the leadership issue has now come back to bite them - and has also allowed Kenny to wallow in a form of fantasy which hardly reflects reality.
He sees himself as the man who led Fine Gael to successive great victories; who crossed the Rubicon to offer a historic shared government with Fianna Fail (that he knew would be rejected); who came to a subsequent arrangement with the old enemy; who has now virtually brought Sinn Fein in from the cold; and who speculates on the prospect of a united Ireland in the wake of his personal management of Brexit.
For many in Fine Gael, Enda Kenny has come to see Enda Kenny as a Great Leader, perhaps the Greatest Leader. He is encouraged in this delusion by various acolytes who tend to boost his ego for their own self-interest. In politics, it was always thus; the fear now, though, is that Kenny has come to believe it.
As a result, he is confident to state that his weak minority government will continue until 2018, when he will welcome the Pope, even as evidence mounts that his government is failing and has become something of a joke.
Not only that, but last week, as we saw, he is also confident enough to openly speculate as to the make-up of the next government when, if true to his word, he should be well gone out to pasture by then.
He has done all of this at a time when he still refuses to confirm or deny his intention to lead Fine Gael into the next election, should a snap election be called before 2018.
The fact that Enda Kenny is said to see Enda Kenny in such terms, and seems more interested in, above all else, securing his own position as leader, is troubling enough. However, that these events are occurring at a time when he as Taoiseach is facing criticism that the country is ill-prepared to meet the challenges of Brexit is alarming.
Regardless of Ireland's preparedness or lack thereof, what is undoubtedly true is that Kenny is using Brexit to shore up his own position as leader. He attempted to do so again yesterday.
There will, of course, be other consequences across the political landscape of Sinn Fein's apparent positional shift. The upshot, ultimately, will be that these events herald the beginning of the end of this minority government, which will almost certainly collapse within a year, if not months.
But it has also served as an overdue reality check for Enda Kenny. His statement yesterday tell us that he remains Fine Gael leader, and Taoiseach, at the grace and favour of his ministers and the wider parliamentary party, which must now also come face to face with its own reality. The question is whether too much further damage has already been done. The longer the current unsustainable position remains, the more pronounced the damage will be.
The next question to be asked, however, is whether to take seriously Mary Lou McDonald's assertion that Sinn Fein is prepared to enter government with whomever as a junior coalition partner.
As she has said herself, Sinn Fein is in transition.
The retirement of Martin McGuinness, replaced by a handpicked Michelle O'Neill as Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, was a first outward show.
But as Shakespeare said, 'outward shows be least themselves': in Sinn Fein's case, this is doubly true.
McDonald herself is said to be favourite to eventually succeed Gerry Adams, although there is no firm indication as yet that such a dramatic change is imminent, or on the cards at all. In themselves, these changes should mean little or nothing. The real question is: who continues to pull the strings?
Police intelligence reports suggest the Provisional IRA exerts overarching control of Sinn Fein, and indeed that the IRA remains armed to an extent.
This alone should be enough for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to rule out coalition with Sinn Fein.
However, with Adams and McGuinness both off the scene, at least publicly, there are sizeable sections within the main parties here content to turn a blind eye to the lurking existence of the IRA.
For example, we know Government chief whip Regina Doherty would; Eamon O Cuiv of Fianna Fail probably would; and now, it would seem that Enda Kenny almost certainly would.
Whether the voting public would be prepared to turn a blind eye, however, is something else entirely: Sinn Fein is gambling that the appearance of a transition will lead them to do so.
As things stand, Sinn Fein has either side of 15pc support among the voting public, and as such, is a block which prevents the formation of a more traditional coalition.
Mary Lou McDonald's raising the prospect of Sinn Fein entering coalition as a junior partner will outwardly change the political landscape. But is this really just another Sinn Fein ruse?
Its new position as a 'responsible party of government' is designed to bridge the chasm into the middle classes. But there is no certainty that Sinn Fein would enter government as a junior partner. Indeed, the party could just as easily say that such an arrangement had proved impossible to negotiate, despite its best efforts; or equally, Sinn Fein could cut and run when the heat in government becomes too much, as it has consistently done in Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, to enter government here would be to abandon the fanciful notion of a Left-led government, which would allow the far Left to eat into Sinn Fein's flank. The outcome of the Northern Ireland elections will tell a lot: if People Before Profit win votes at the expense of Sinn Fein, there will be conniptions in Sinn Fein to rival those in Fine Gael this weekend.
In the end, though, Sinn Fein Oireachtas members can be expected to do as the Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein leadership dictates. It was also always thus.
When the Sunday Independent reported almost two years ago that Enda Kenny had failed to clearly rule out a Fine Gael/Sinn Fein government, we also reported on analysis by the Davy group, which advises investors worldwide, to the effect that a such a coalition was a "50-50" chance.
In an assessment on the "political risks" to the country, Davy advised that Sinn Fein would be unlikely to stick to its anti-austerity policies in government, and would be "perfectly happy" to "moderate" its economic views in a "middle of the road" coalition. Few believe that is not still the case, although I am of the view that Sinn Fein remains wedded to its longer-term ambition to build.
In the scenario as outlined by Davy, however, the Left field would be cleared for PBP, the Socialists, Independents4Change. Indeed, it might also throw a lifeline to the Labour Party.
The most content party in the country this weekend will be Fianna Fail, whose leader remains resolutely opposed to coalition with Sinn Fein. That has not changed. Fianna Fail is rubbing its hands at the prospect of a dividend of Fine Gael supporters in south Dublin and other more comfortable areas nationwide, and would be content to look on for another while as reality bites for Sinn Fein in government.
All of this is evident to Fine Gael's leaders in waiting, which is why you can expect them to move against Enda Kenny sooner rather than later, followed by an election in a relatively short period thereafter.