Taoiseach Enda Kenny has risked deepening the increasingly bitter Fine Gael war over when he will step down by saying he has no intention of leaving until the Northern Ireland political crisis is resolved.
Speaking after the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York City, Mr Kenny said the Northern Ireland issue “takes precedence over everything else”, effectively delaying his departure until at least the summer.
In the aftermath of a tentative coup against Mr Kenny last month, the Taoiseach told the parliamentary party he would address the leadership issue conclusively on his return from his week-long US visit.
However, while the position was widely seen to indicate he would step down later this month or in early April, no definitive timeline was given.
In recent weeks, Mr Kenny has caused concern among Fine Gael dissenters that he will not leave due to his repeated references to the need for stability during the Brexit negotiations next month and last Thursday’s meeting with US president Donald Trump.
However, while those close to Mr Kenny have sought to downplay such fears, the Taoiseach poured further fuel on the flames yesterday by saying the Northern Ireland political crisis is now another reason for why he should not step down.
Asked about when he will resign after walking past cheering crowds at the New York City St Patrick’s Day parade, Mr Kenny said he continues to have “a number of priorities” that must be resolved.
He said the political impasse in the North caused by last month’s Stormont elections, and the fact Sinn Féin and DUP now have just three weeks to form a government or be forced into another election in May, was a new addition to these “priorities”, and stoked backbench anger by saying Ireland must provide “stable” leadership.
“What I’ve always said is I need to deal with a number of priorities here, the first priority is to put in place an executive in Northern Ireland,” said Mr Kenny.
“We have no government, no devolved authority, in Northern Ireland now. I hope the parties who are elected will accept the responsibility of putting together a government within the three-week period.
“What I did say to my party is that I would deal with this effectively and conclusively on my return, that’s my intention. But I think these are priorities that take precedence over everything else.”
Asked directly when he is “going to deal with it [the leadership question]”, Mr Kenny said: “I’m not going to answer that for you. Do you not think it’s appropriate that the immediate priority is to have an executive functioning in Northern Ireland, do you not think it’s appropriate that all the work we put together we should have an agreed negotiating stance for the EU that’s going to affect everybody in our country?
“I intend to follow through on those [priorities] very, very diligently.”
A number of Fine Gael backbenchers known to want Mr Kenny to step down as soon as possible last night declined to comment publicly, but said it has already been made clear to the Taoiseach he cannot continue to ignore the leadership issue.
Mr Kenny’s New York comments came 48 hours after a draft version of his speech to the American- Ireland Fund Gala in Washington DC said this would be his last St Patrick’s Day as Taoiseach before it was deleted from the script.
Asked about the change to the otherwise untouched 1,500-word speech on Wednesday, Mr Kenny simply said it was removed “because it shouldn’t have been in there”.
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