"WHEN I win this vote, I will go on to be Taoiseach," said a fiery Enda Kenny — to a roar described by one TD as being "as loud of those vuvuzela horns in South Africa" — as he delivered a rousing speech in a packed Leinster House meeting room, which saw off party rebels seeking to oust him.
That was 2010 and the background was a FIFA World Cup and a failed Fine Gael heave. True to his word, the long-serving Mayo TD showed his shrewd and steely side and went on to become leader of the land.
The episode, which until two weeks ago had seemed like little more than a distant memory — has re-emerged in the minds of many in the party which in recent days has became unwittingly engulfed in a crony-crisis of its very own making.
Kenny’s critics — who he had so craftily confounded in the past — began raising the same sorts of doubts about his leadership, which he had previously laid to rest.
The Taoiseach — with some help from his finance minister — has put up a determined effort to silence these doubters and bring down the shutters on the controversy surrounding the appointment of his Seanad nominee — John McNulty — to the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).
While most in his parliamentary party say they just want “closure” on it, few are willing to bet that there are no more twists to come in the saga.
And all of the parliamentary party are surveying the wounds it has inflicted on the party and the standing of their leader.
The public comments by at least four Fine Gael TDs highlight just how serious the situation became for Mr Kenny in the past 10 days.
It started when Waterford TD, John Deasy, told RTÉ Radio that people in Fine Gael were “disgusted” with how the party was being run. He said there was a sense of fear within the parliamentary party that if people did not toe the line they would be punished.
Mr Deasy was followed shortly by Cavan-Monaghan TD, Sean Conlan, who went as far as to compare Mr Kenny to the former Fianna Fáil leader, Charles Haughey — something that offended many in the party.
“We are very fearful of the fact that the situation with the Taoiseach is returning to the days of stroke politics and the days of Charlie Haughey, and we don’t want a situation like that,” he said last Friday.
Then, on Tuesday night before the much-anticipated meeting of the parliamentary parry, West Cork TD, Jim Daly told RTÉ Prime Time: “This entire debacle — and I speak for my colleagues — we’re embarrassed by it and we are annoyed by it. I don’t like having accusations put to me on the doors in Clonakilty that ‘you’re no different to Fianna Fáil. You’re no different to what has gone before you’.”
As one TD put it, the parliamentary party meeting might have been a whole lot different if it took place on Monday or Tuesday, when TDs were in a rage. But by Wednesday night, many were already weary of the issue and were more interested in moving on than in pushing the Taoiseach for the questions they believed were still not answered.
Sensing this mood, Finance Minister Michael Noonan, in his speech to the gathering, appealed to the most basic of political instincts: Self-preservation.
He effectively told TDs not to blow it at a time when they have a positive story to sell to the electorate ahead of the first non-austerity budget in six years.
His words had resonance, but TDs believe it’s only worthwhile to keep quiet on the matter, so long as their constituents believe it’s credible for them to do so.
“I’m not sure how much the general public are worried about this. But there are many people across the party membership who are deeply concerned about how it played out,” said one TD.
“I don’t think there is any threat to Kenny’s leadership. But our membership is bothered and it is having a profound effect on them,” he added.
Another TD who would be loyal to Kenny, said: “I was bitterly disappointed with the ineptitude and incompetence surrounding this.”
He believes the way the Taoiseach dealt with the controversy at Wednesday night’s parliamentary party meeting rescued the situation which was at risk of going out of control.
“There were definitely many in the party whose faith in Kenny had been wavering but he won a lot of them back,” the TD said.
In that speech the Taoiseach said he “deeply regretted” what had happened and accepted that it was very unfair on TDs themselves, and the arts minister, Heather Humphreys.
“There were echoes of his speech to the parliamentary party when his leadership was challenged in 2010. It was as powerful and as passionate a contribution as on that day,” said the TD. “And it really brought closure to the issue.”
It seems to have done enough to shore up support for Mr Kenny for now, but some TDs believe it brings him one crisis closer to a catastrophe.
“My concern has always been that these issues come along every so often and we don’t seem to be able to get a handle on them,” said one worried backbencher.
“The problem is that no matter what good work we are doing, we seem to get bogged down in these sort of situations. I am not happy with it and I want it to stop.”
There are still many more issues that could arise in the McNulty affair, mainly borne out of the fact that many questions remain unanswered.
The Taoiseach has given two different accounts of the interview he conducted with Mr McNulty to assess his suitability to take up a seat on the cultural panel of the Seanad.
On Tuesday he told the Dáil that Mr McNulty had indicated, at that point, that he would like to sit on a cultural board.
On Wednesday he said: “I never discussed anything with him about cultural boards or any other boards.”
There is also a huge credibility gap in the scant answers provided to date by Minister Humphreys. She said she appointed Mr McNulty to the IMMA board based on his own merit, after she was given his CV by Fine Gael officials.
Yesterday she said she was “not at liberty to say” who suggested McNulty because that was a “Fine Gael matter”.
The Standards in Public Office code of conduct for office holders states that “appointments by members of the Government should be made on the basis of merit, taking into account the skills, qualifications, and experience of the person to be appointed”.
In the absence of Ms Humphreys providing answers to the many questions, there is no reason to dismiss interpretations by the opposition that this appointment was made for electoral reasons.
Many TDs have privately criticised Ms Humphreys for not “stepping up to the mark”. One TD commented: “If any other party were dodging interviews like that we would have been calling them dictators. If you get a big job, you have to take the rough with the smooth.”
There is also the prospect facing the Taoiseach that Mr McNulty might still get elected to the Seanad despite his request that Oireachtas members do not vote for him.
A number of TDs and senators had already cast their ballots before Mr McNulty announced on Tuesday that he was no longer seeking the seat. It’s widely expected that others may proceed to do so. This could result in a situation where Mr Kenny’s control over his party would be called into question if his request not to vote for Mr McNulty was defied.
There are also many lingering questions about Mr Kenny’s attitude to the Seanad which he sought to abolish on the basis that it was used as a retirement home or a breeding ground for candidates.
Despite this, he admitted to the Dáil that winning a seat in Donegal in the next general election was part of his reason for nominating Mr McNulty to the Seanad.
He said 29 names were submitted as potential candidates and the party’s executive council made two recommendations.
“Subsequently, Deputy [Dinny] McGinley said he was going to retire. That left a vacancy for a major political representative for half of Donegal,” Mr Kenny said. “I looked at Mr McNulty’s credentials and said he was a candidate who would fit the bill in terms of work in the Seanad.”
It seems for now that the Taoiseach is nowhere near returning to the situation he found himself in back in 2010. But now that his critics have found their voice again, they might be willing to use it more often.
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