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Andrew Lynch: You were wrong Enda, FG's still badly divided

WHEN Enda Kenny unveiled his new front bench earlier this month, he laughed at suggestions that his enemies were only biding their time before launching another challenge to his leadership.

"There is no long grass in Fine Gael, it's all been cut," he insisted.

The evidence suggests that he needs to get a new lawnmower -- because behind the fixed smiles in public, FG remains a deeply divided party with serious problems to sort out before they can be taken seriously as a government-in-waiting.

After a few weeks of basking in the praise he deservedly won for fighting off Richard Bruton's leadership bid, Kenny's honeymoon period now appears to be officially over.



Embarrassed

FG have been severely embarrassed by the revelation that they took money from a property developer who owes around €1bn to NAMA.

Michael Noonan, the new finance spokesman, has ruffled feathers by apparently rubbishing the party's key employment policy.

Most ominously of all, several Bruton supporters have openly described relations between themselves and Kenny's team as "poisonous" -- with the young pretender Brian Hayes making it clear that as far as he's concerned, the Mayo man is still very much a leader on probation.

In the short term, the images of FG politicians teeing off with elite business leaders at the exclusive K Club will cause most damage to the party's image. Long before the recession hit, Kenny took every available opportunity to lambast Brian Cowen and Fianna Fail for sucking up to an unholy alliance of builders and bankers.

Last Wednesday, however, the party hosted its very own version of the Galway Tent -- a fundraising golf classic for millionaire donors which suggested that FG's principles can be dropped as soon as chequebooks are opened.

One of the golfers who swung his Mercedes into the K Club's car park was Michael O'Flynn, whose construction firm is one of the most indebted in the country and who recently transferred almost €1bn worth of loans to NAMA.

Another was ESB chief executive Fergus Murphy, who recently insisted that there could be no bail-out for struggling homeowners due to the risk of "moral hazard".

The event also received money from accountancy giants PricewaterhouseCoopers and the law firm Arthur Cox, who are providing NAMA with tax and legal advice.

Since FG have bitterly opposed NAMA right from the start, taking cash from some of its leading lights might leave them open to accusations of rank hypocrisy. In fact, the most significant thing Michael Noonan has done since he became finance spokesman has been to quietly admit that he would be prepared to do business with the government's 'toxic bank' after all.



Scorn

And that's not the only way in which Noonan has implicitly criticised his predecessor, Richard Bruton -- because last week he appeared to pour scorn on the notion that the party's New Era employment strategy had the potential to create 105,000 jobs.

The former FG leader has a reputation as a straight talker, but even his colleagues must have been taken aback when he dismissed one of the party's key policy documents. New Era, which has now been launched three times without making much public impact, promises to take over 100,000 people off the dole through an extensive upgrading of the country's infrastructure. Noonan, however, told Newstalk that this figure "seems to be some kind of a public relations add-on that enthusiastic people attached to it" -- and although he now admits that he handled the interview badly, the damage has already been done.

In the long run, however, the development that will cause Enda Kenny most concern is Brian Hayes's warning that the leader must up his game or face another leadership challenge before the next election.



Exiled

Now exiled on the backbenches, Hayes has bitterly described as "cute hoors" the FG backbenchers who constantly complained about Kenny in private but then bottled out when the time came to vote.

Enda Kenny is just about maintaining his position as the bookies' favourite to be the next Taoiseach. In golfing parlance, however, he is still struggling to get his ball out of the bunker -- and he has plenty of hazards left to negotiate before he makes it to the clubhouse.


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