Friday 26 April 2019

When push comes to shove, Kenny's rivals need to show they are up for it

If the Fine Gael leadership challengers are too timid to make a move on the job, then maybe the Taoiseach should keep it

Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Frank McGrath
Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Frank McGrath

Eilis O'Hanlon

The Social Democrats were mocked for being a party with three TDs and three leaders.

That's no longer the case, since Stephen Donnelly left to become Fianna Fail's spokesman on Brexit.

Now the Soc Dems have two TDs and two leaders, which is still one more leader than is traditional in most political parties, albeit slightly less dysfunctional.

Fine Gael now has it beat on that score, and Fianna Fail's Barry Cowen mocked them for it mercilessly last week, proposing that there be an adjournment on the thorny issue of what to do about water charges to allow the governing party to "consult their three leaders" on the way forward.

Only three? Frances Fitzgerald still seems to fancy her chances, a year after she was reportedly taking female colleagues out to fancy restaurants to canvass support, and Paschal Donohoe, who said in January that FG would not have a change of ruler in 2017, can't be ruled out either. It's always the quiet ones you have to watch out for, after all. So that makes five leaders and/or leaders in waiting.

Six, if you include Simon Harris, who came over all coy when his name was mooted recently, though who knows how he might feel when the phoney war is finally over and a leadership race begins?

At the current rate of progress, the fresh-faced Minister for Health could be middle-aged by then, ready for a shot at power. Alternatively, maybe not.

Fellow ministers Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar certainly don't seem to be in a hurry.

That's why Cowen is wrong. There are not three leaders of FG right now. There's only one, and his name is Enda Kenny.

All things considered, it's starting to look as if he's the right man for the job too, not because he's better at it than his rivals might be, given half a chance, but just because he's the only one who seems to have the appetite for it.

Wasn't Kenny supposed to have fallen on his sword by now?

"Backbench Fine Gael TDs want Kenny to resign by Christmas," announced one Irish Independent headline last June. Christmas came and went, giving the lie to the confident prediction of the FG source in that article who declared that Kenny "might want to go under his own steam and flex the last bit of muscle he has left, but the reality is that if he digs in, it won't be him who makes the decision".

Wanna bet?

As the New Year stretched into spring, they started to say, with the air of powerful men making a generous concession, that they might give Kenny until St Patrick's Day, so that he could go to the White House and deliver the traditional bowl of shamrock to the newly elected President Trump.

Kenny did just that, only he also pulled a rabbit out of the hat by giving a speech on immigration which went down well with the international audience, and even had begrudgers back home admitting that the Taoiseach had risen impressively to the occasion.

Buoyed up, he then got a further round of applause at the funeral in Derry of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, when Bill Clinton singled him out for praise for that same speech in Washington.

Back home, supporters of the other leadership contenders were being asked on radio and TV when this issue would be resolved.

"Soon," they insisted soothingly.

Asked to define "soon", they then giggled nervously, refusing to be drawn on details and dates.

Some mumbled something vague about the "summer", while barely daring to specify what constituted an Irish summer.

Kenny's supporters, meanwhile, were urging TDs not to risk upsetting the apple cart by kicking him out before the countdown to Brexit officially began. This wasn't the time for a new leader, they argued. Too much was at stake.

Now Article 50 has been triggered, and the Taoiseach was present at the European Council summit on that historic day, and now they've started to say he should hang on till the next phase.

When's that? No one knows. It could be when the council meets again at the end of April to adopt its agreed guidelines for Brexit.

It might be the following month, when all the details will be ironed out. That seems to be Finance Minister Michael Noonan's view.

Or does it mean when talks get under way properly? The French presidential vote is still to come, then the German elections. It's possible Brexit talks won't start in earnest before the autumn.

First the two sides also have to agree a financial settlement, which is not strictly part of the Brexit talks at all. So which part of the talks do his supporters mean?

It doesn't matter. It's all buying time, and the more of it that he buys, the more Kenny makes his challengers look weak.

It's no great mystery why his rivals are so coy about pulling the trigger on Kenny's leadership. It's because none of them wants to be the one who gets the reputation for disloyalty, lest that damages them among nice, middle-class blue shirts in any forthcoming contest for the top job.

It seems they have drunk the Kool-Aid and are now intoxicated enough to believe that old guff about FG being some gentlemanly club whose members never hit below the belt. Tell that to disabled teenagers who've had their benefits cut while FG has been in power.

Even if that was true, politics is about taking calculated risks, and both Varadkar and Coveney appear to be overdoing the calculation and neglecting the risk.

Those who repeatedly shy away from danger, even when the ultimate prize in Irish politics is up for grabs, hardly deserve to reap the rewards. If they cannot even persuade Enda that he should stand aside in the interests of the party, after all, how can they hope to accomplish the far trickier task of persuading the country to vote FG in any forthcoming election?

Coveney sounded confident last week that they have some sort of agreement on an orderly transition of power, insisting that "I don't think this is going to be a prolonged process that goes on for months". But what makes them so sure that Kenny really will deal with the leadership issue in early June after the next European Council summit, when he also reassured them that he would deal with it when he returned from America, then didn't? Especially when there's such a strong case for saying that he should not make it easy for them in the first place.

Kenny knows that he is not the country's greatest Taoiseach, or even FG's best Taoiseach. It took the most unpopular government in history before voters decided to trust him with the highest office, and he didn't get an overall majority even then, needing Labour Party support to govern.

But having reached the top after 40 years of lowly obscurity on the backbenches, with little more than a spell as Minister for Tourism to enliven his CV, Kenny seems determined to hold on to his position for as long as possible.

Isn't that exactly the dogged quality that's needed in a leader, rather than a mindset which sits around waiting patiently for one's rivals to quietly quit the scene?

His rivals are too timid to push him, so why should he jump?

If they want it, go and take it. If not, crawl back to middle-ranking mediocrity like the rest of the toadies. The country needs stalwart leaders, not wimps. If Kenny is the only one tough enough to fight for it, let him keep the job.

Sunday Independent

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