Tánaiste refuses to answer question on damage to re-election hopes after Taoiseach’s debate admission

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Irish Examiner Political Reporter

Labour leader Joan Burton has declined to say whether Taoiseach Enda Kenny's TV leaders debate admission he was responsible for a key "cronyism" appointment in 2014 will damage the coalition's faltering re-election bid.

Speaking at her party's final press conference before Friday's crucial national vote, the Tánaiste declined four times to confirm whether the high-profile controversy will further reduce Government support.

During the four-way RTÉ TV leaders debate last night, Mr Kenny admitted he was responsible for the 2014 appointment of John McNulty to the Irish Museum of Modern Art board in order to ensure he could be nominated for the Seanad.

Two years ago, the Taoiseach told the Dáil he was not responsible for the move, which caused significant controversy and claims of cronyism due to the fact Mr McNulty was not specifically qualified for the post.

However, during the leaders debate Mr Kenny said "what I did was make an appointment that did not need to be made", formally taking responsibility for what happened.

While the Taoiseach stepped back from the remark today, repeating his 2014 assertion it was the ultimately Arts Minister Heather Humphreys decision which he took responsibility for as head of Government, the TV remark risks re-igniting the debate over controversial appointments to State boards.

Asked four times at her party's press conference whether Mr Kenny's comments would damage the coalition's re-election bid, Ms Burton first said the 2014 incident "wasn't his finest hour" but that reforms have come as a result of it.

However, she declined to say what impact it will have on Friday's vote, saying: "You'll have to wait until Saturday [when vote counts begin]".

Meanwhile, Ms Burton yesterday warned Ireland could inadvertently see one of "the most conservative Governments in recent decades" elected in the form of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil unless voters continue to support the Labour party.

Flanked by Communications Minister Alex White and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin at the party's central Dublin election headquarters, she said "nobody wants" that coalition and claimed Fianna Fáil's arrogance is returning before votes are even cast.

"I saw last night [the TV debate] and during the week a return of a certain smugness in Fianna Fáil. Smugness with a smile. Old wine in new bottles, the new Micheál [Martin] bottles," she said.

After Ms Burton said she is offering "solid, sustained progress" and not "a workers' utopia or a liberal nirvana", Mr Howlin said "I confess it hasn't always been easy" but repeatedly emphasised "compromise" was necessary to keep Ireland afloat.

He said now is not the time to risk the recovery and accused Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil of "silly brinksmanship" over a future coalition which would have "a split" first on their agenda.

Ms Burton was also asked if she will put her name forward for the party's leadership if Labour leaves government, but said "I do not envisage" the party not being re-elected.

Neither Mr Howlin nor Mr White confirmed if they will seek the position in such a scenario.

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