Tuesday 23 July 2019

Gavan Reilly: 'How senior ministers spelled it out for Kenny that - for him - the game was up'

Leader in waiting: Taoiseach Enda Kenny visits Scoil Bhríde in Blanchardstown, Dublin, with then minister Leo Varadkar in late 2015. Photo: Colin Keegan / Collins
Leader in waiting: Taoiseach Enda Kenny visits Scoil Bhríde in Blanchardstown, Dublin, with then minister Leo Varadkar in late 2015. Photo: Colin Keegan / Collins

Gavan Reilly

The following is an extract from 'Enda the Road: Nine Days That Toppled a Taoiseach' by Gavan Reilly, which is an account of a nine-day political hurricane that brought down the former Taoiseach.

Prelude to the extract: On February 15, 2017, Fine Gael TDs and senators attended their weekly meeting of the parliamentary party. It had been a tumultuous week. It had emerged that Katherine Zappone was aware of a file containing false allegations against the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe - but had not told her Cabinet colleagues about it, just as they were setting up a formal public inquiry into his mistreatment.

More worryingly, Enda Kenny had given a confused, contradictory and tortured account of what he did or didn't know. The botched handling of a scandal had pushed Fine Gael towards a nervous breakdown, and the Independent Alliance towards the brink of collapsing the Government.

The Dáil was due to vote on a motion of no confidence that night, tabled by Sinn Féin. If Fianna Fáil was to support it, it would pass - collapsing the Government, and triggering a general election that Kenny had already ruled out leading Fine Gael into.

Extract (has been slightly edited/condensed): Kenny spoke, but not for terribly long. As with any other week, he accounted for his activities of the last few days and offered a general overview of Government activity. He concluded by informing his troops that the previous week "had not been easy" and that he accepted "responsibility" for the political tumult that followed his botched radio appearance - but TDs needed to divert their attention to the motion of confidence facing them tonight. If everyone would only focus on that near-term issue, they would give Kenny "an opportunity to talk with the parliamentary party at a different time" about the "pressures and frustration" that were now arising.

But there was not a word explicitly acknowledging the frailty of his position as leader. The reference to a future talk was clearly a shielded reference to his own political mortality, but Kenny hadn't given a tangible indication on when this chat might happen. His refusal to broach the topic more explicitly might have been seen as a sign that he was knuckling down.

Next to speak was the finance minister, Michael Noonan, who went into lengthy (almost excruciating) detail about how the economy had dramatically rebounded during Fine Gael's tenure. "Practically every objective we have set has been achieved," he said. The Troika had been kicked out; unemployment had sunk from over 15pc to under six; two million people were at work. Fine Gael had taken Ireland from the doldrums and put it back on a sound footing from which it could thrive once more.

But Noonan spoke at such length that, although there were no explicit references to the party leadership dilemma, some in the room believed he might be mounting a filibuster. The Dáil motion of confidence was to be debated at 6.45pm, and every minute he spoke was a minute taken away from others who wanted to vent their concerns.

Those critics in the room grew itchy. The anticipated showdown was turning into a washout.

***

Outside, the Independent Alliance was marching to the plinth. Shane Ross took the lead, reading from a statement.

"We have been dismayed and, frankly, disturbed by contradictory versions of events which have emerged this week," Ross read. "Some aspects of Cabinet communications are not working effectively or appropriately. This is not how we wish to do business… We went into Government to end cronyism and that insider culture which can prove so corrupting to society."

Where was this going - was the Alliance about to walk? "A government is greater than any individual or personality within it and we are committed to delivering on the promises we made when we took office …"

Then the punchline: "We in the Independent Alliance have therefore secured a commitment from the Minister for Justice today to appoint without delay an independent, international, policing expert to carry out a thorough investigation into the wider and more fundamental issues of public concern which have emerged…"

That was it. The group had extracted the concession it needed. The Independent Alliance was on board. The Government was safe. But how uneasy was the marriage? Journalists jumped in with questions. What exactly had Ross and his band of brothers said to Kenny?

"We said that we were very disappointed with a lot of the confusion that had occurred within Government in recent days, and that we found it unacceptable, and we hoped it wouldn't happen in future."

Had withdrawal from Government been an option? "We considered it."

The Alliance was still confused as to Kenny's account of events - of what they had known and when - but, as Ross said, "We do not think it would be appropriate, in this situation where we're putting down a motion of confidence in the Government, to suggest that we have no confidence in the Taoiseach."

The TDs seemed happy but not all the journalists shared their enthusiasm. There already was an independent Garda Inspectorate to examine culture and performance. Journalists could be forgiven for thinking that Frances Fitzgerald's 'concession' was simply to set up a new body that had already existed.

The Fine Gael negotiators were simply happy to have the Alliance firmly on side.

***

Five floors above, Noonan was wrapping up his contribution to the Fine Gael meeting while the Independent Alliance was wrapping up its press conference outside. Taking the two events in aggregate, it suddenly seemed an attack on Enda Kenny was not going to materialise.

Then Leo Varadkar got to his feet. The wild unpredictability of the last week, he said, had only highlighted the precarious footing on which the Government was placed. It might not happen tonight, but it was plainly obvious now that some other scandal could come along in the not-too-distant future that would cause either Fianna Fáil or the Independents to withdraw their support and end the Government. "We must be ready," he said, "for an election."

The words might have seemed anodyne, or delivered matter-of-factly, but the meaning was clear. Kenny had ruled himself out of leading a further election campaign, so if Fine Gael was to be ready for a surprise election, it needed to have a leader who was prepared to lead it. Varadkar, an aspiring leader, was asking for that conversation to begin.

Next came Simon Coveney, the Housing Minister and Varadkar's likely opponent in the leadership stakes. While stressing the need for "unity" within the party, he too declared that the party needed to be ready for a snap election outside of its own control or timing. The "future of the party" therefore needed to be addressed, he said.

Co-ordinated or not, the dam was broken. Paschal Donohoe, a minister who had often enjoyed Kenny's preferment, made a similar contribution, stressing the volatility of the marriage to Fianna Fáil and the need to be prepared for a short-notice divorce.

Simon Harris declared that the country needed Fine Gael to be ready to restate its case, and that Fine Gael in turn could not be caught unawares by an election.

Even the Tánaiste herself, Frances Fitzgerald, warned of how ill-prepared Fine Gael would be if the Dáil were suddenly to be dissolved.

Five of the Fine Gael ministers who had taken part in the Government formation talks were now warning that the party's grip on power was tenuous enough to warrant a serious intervention.

Each of the five ministers had been careful to phrase their words delicately. None had pointedly demanded the Taoiseach's resignation - all had, rather, simply inferred the need to prepare the party for a worst-case scenario. One witness said the true message was delivered as much through "nuance and implication as much as what was said by anyone and everyone". Nobody would have been in any doubt, however, over exactly what was being implied.

***

"It wasn't a heave," one participant said. "There were no nasty divisions, or at least there weren't intended to be. Instead it was a genuine realisation by practising politicians that the game was up, whether we wanted it or not. We had a choice: we could either be humiliated by Fianna Fáil at a time of its choosing, or we could resolve that never again would we find ourselves on the cusp of a general election not knowing who was going to be on the posters."

6.45pm eventually rolled around, and the meeting was adjourned to allow TDs go to the Dáil and vote their confidence in the Government of Enda Kenny. But the mood had changed irrevocably: the Government might survive but for Kenny himself the game was up.

  • Published by Mercier Press, €16.95
  • Gavan Reilly is political correspondent at Virgin Media News

Irish Independent

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