Realisation dawned on Kenny his days were numbered

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and former taoiseach Enda Kenny in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel. A new book by political correspondent Gavan Reilly, ‘Enda the Road’, charting Kenny’s final days as taoiseach, reveals how he and his inner circle were extremely wary of the ‘young buck’ Varadkar and his clear manoeuvrings to succeed him. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Enda Kenny resigned as taoiseach on June 13, 2017 having been Fine Gael’s most successful leader ever. After surviving a botched internal heave in the summer of 2010, eight months later he was taoiseach and head of a coalition government with the largest Dáil majority in history.

Following a shambolic campaign in 2016, Fine Gael suffered a major collapse in support and Kenny clung to power, squatting in Government Buildings for more than 70 days while he desperately cobbled together a minority government. For all of his efforts from 2011 in turning the country around, the people, en masse, rejected him and his arrogant party, which lost 26 seats.

Once he suffered that reversal, he was never the same and he was always a condemned man. Having said he would not look to serve another term as leader or contest another election, his days were numbered.

Since the time of the formation talks, the power was draining away from Kenny towards the two most obvious leadership contenders — Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. By the time he left office, Kenny was a beaten docket. He departed knowing that his demise, ultimately, was his own fault.

He messed up. No one else. That is the obvious conclusion one takes when one reviews what happened.

A pacy new book, Enda the Road, by Virgin Media Television’s political correspondent Gavan Reilly, claims to chart the nine crucial days which led to Kenny’s demise. He chronicles what readers of this newspaper will be familiar with — how the shadow of the maltreatment of Sergeant Maurice McCabe had engulfed Fine Gael in office for several years.

Reilly’s book reveals in detail how, between Tuesday, February 7, and Wednesday, February 15, the former taoiseach’s concoction of an imagined conversation with the children’s minister Katherine Zappone about the treatment of Sgt McCabe set in train a series of events which saw him left with no option but to step down. The book reveals how, behind the scenes, Kenny’s department sought to stop a statement being issued by Zappone’s department on what was known about a Tusla file relating to Sgt McCabe.

“Kenny’s team were profoundly displeased that Zappone’s handlers issued the statement without their full agreement,” writes Reilly.

The anger over perceived insubordination was compounded by new political claims contained within it. Kenny later admitted he was wrong to say Zappone told him she was meeting Sgt McCabe.

The then-taoiseach said he was “guilty of not giving accurate information” in relation to who told him about Zappone’s meeting with Sgt McCabe.

“After the botched [RTÉ radio] interview where he recalled with specific detail how he had spoken to Zappone before her meeting with the McCabes... when that account was later written off as untrue, Kenny’s trustworthiness took a hit from which he never recovered,” Reilly concludes.

Succeeding in delving into the petty world of internal Fine Gael politics, Reilly also reveals that attempts were made to exclude Leo Varadkar from talks to save the Kenny administration because he was unpopular with the Independent Alliance ministers.

The Independent Alliance, Fine Gael’s reluctant coalition partners, had been unimpressed with Varadkar’s demeanour and levels of interest during talks that had formed the government a year before.

A crucial meeting, convened to attempt to save the fragile minority government from falling, saw Varadkar left out in the cold and not invited.

Word… came through from the Independent Alliance, which sought a meeting with Kenny and the same negotiating team that had sealed its own participation in government.

The meeting, sought by the Independent Alliance ministerial team, which included Shane Ross and Finian McGrath, was held in the final days of the crisis.

“Unsure of exactly what to make of this request, Kenny gathered the entire team of negotiators — Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney, Paschal Donohoe, Michael Noonan and Simon Harris in his office to appraise the situation.”

Varadkar, in the beginning, wasn’t invited. While Alliance suspicions of Varadkar were one reason for his original exclusion, Kenny and his inner circle were extremely wary of the young buck and his clear manoeuvrings to succeed him.

“Leo Varadkar was also invited, but his invite came only after journalists got wind of the meeting, and the social protection minister was visibly annoyed when he showed up at Kenny’s office to find that his colleagues had begun strategising without him.

“Though formally labelled as a ‘genuine oversight’, Varadkar’s belated invitation might have been a deliberate measure. Varadkar had not quite endeared himself to the Alliance during the talks on government formation, taking a languid back seat role and leaving Fitzgerald and Coveney to do the bulk of the talking, before suddenly swooping in with the role of ‘bad cop’ at moments of dispute and threatening the collapse of the talks unless the Alliance gave way.”

Leo, Reilly states, was not impressed to say the least.

“Varadkar, irked by the failure to invite him on time, opted not to attend the Independent Alliance meeting at all. Whether by accident or design, however, his absence from the room was taken by the Alliance as a sign it wasn’t being treated seriously,” Reilly concludes.

The devise of condensing down the drama to a neat nine-day period is a most effective one but in truth the demise of Kenny started long before February 2017.

For example, the book’s structure allows Reilly to paint the occasion where Varadkar and Coveney were seen drinking together in the members’ bar in the Dáil ahead of a crucial meeting where they both demanded Kenny make clear his departure date, given the risk of a snap election.

“Others in the bar thought this was odd; neither Coveney nor Varadkar were regular visitors to the bar. Seeing either in the members-only venue was rare; seeing the two together, with Varadkar drinking from a bottle of Corona and Coveney sipping a pint of Heineken, struck others as conspiratorial.”

As the two men are not close and never have been, the image of the two of the drinking together at such a pivotal point justifiably drove suspicion of a plot. Two and a half years on from the Kenny era, we can view his office and his departure with a degree of enhanced perspective.

While he was often criticised, Kenny had some real highlights in office, most notably his repudiation of the role of the Catholic Church in the abuse scandals, typified in his Cloyne speech in 2012.

He proved himself to be a far more effective taoiseach than many suspected he would be. But he was also a man of considerable limits and while the book links his demise to events in February 2017, it is not the full picture.

In truth, his demise can be traced back to his caving into his then tánaiste Joan Burton in October 2015, who blocked his wish to go to the country that November. The minute he did that, he was goosed.

When eventually he did go to the country, he oversaw an election campaign so chaotic and misdirected it was laughable. Returned to the Dáil minus 26 TDs, Kenny was fatally wounded and it was merely a matter of time before events, or as it turned out, his own foolishness which sunk him.

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