Fine Gael members turned on each other last night as deputy leader James Reilly accused rebel TDs of using him as a “punchbag” and “proxy” in order to get to Enda Kenny.
Backbenchers pressing for the Taoiseach to step down as party leader clashed at the parliamentary party meeting with Senator Reilly, who was forced to defend his reappointment.
Despite a pact agreed by phone with Mr Reilly the previous night that there would be no “confrontation”, the deputy leader was vexed when TDs began complaining.
Mr Kenny was confronted by several TDs about Mr Reilly’s reappointment, a week since the announcement at the last party meeting first sparked a backlash.
It had been agreed by phone on Wednesday night that there would be no confrontation. This came after days of backbenchers pushing for Mr Kenny to set a date for his exit amid fear Fine Gael could face a snap election under his watch.
Mr Kenny told the meeting that ministers should concentrate on their portfolios with the build-up to the budget and ensure the Government’s stability.
But the Taoiseach did not address calls for him to outline when or how he will step aside and allow a successor lead Fine Gael.
Cork South West’s Jim Daly, one of the TDs linked to a draft motion calling for a change of leader earlier this week, spoke about Mr Reilly taking back his position.
He said it was a “bad appointment” and Mr Reilly had been incapable of holding his Dublin seat. He said he wanted the appointment reversed and that it would not help rejuvenate the party.
Several sources said Mr Reilly told the meeting he was ready to listen and tour constituencies to hear concerns about Fine Gael. But he also lashed back at TDs criticising his reappointment, accusing them of using him as a “punchbag”, and as a “proxy” to get to Mr Kenny himself.
But Mr Daly said it was “not personal” and that he had actually written to Mr Kenny when Mr Reilly was health minister saying he should stay in his post.
Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan repeated the call for Mr Reilly’s appointment to be reversed, before similar questions were raised by Waterford TD John Deasy and Kerry TD Brendan Griffin.
The latter, the only backbencher to date to publicly call for Mr Kenny to step down over the summer, repeated the call in front of the Taoiseach.
He said the issues behind his concerns had not gone away, and Mr Kenny needs to put the party first.
One TD said: “Kenny responded but he didn’t really say anything. He got a kicking, Reilly got a kicking. I don’t know where this is going.
The row was described as “tense as hell”.
A number of TDs confirmed no senior minister, including Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar, Housing Minister Simon Coveney and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, spoke at any point. All three are considered potential leadership candidates should Mr Kenny step down, with some TDs yesterday saying this may happen by Christmas.
After the tense party meeting, Mr Kenny and Mr Reilly then had tea with TDs Pat Deering and Fergus O’Dowd, two of the rebel backbenchers.
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