It seems Donohoe is favoured by the Taoiseach and Finance Minister Michael Noonan to take over as leader of Fine Gael, writes Daniel McConnell

FANS of the original House of Cards series remember fondly the wickedly machiavellian character of Francis Urquhart 25 years on from its first airing on the BBC.

Played superbly by the late Ian Richardson, Urquhart, in the beginning denies to all around him that he is interested in becoming British prime minister following the departure of Margaret Thatcher.

As chief whip, he insisted he was a backroom boy, there to “put some stick about”, not to consider occupying the highest political office.

All the while, he schemed, plotted, and connived his way to the top, eventually succeeding in ascending to the throne.

I raise the Urquhart example as we in this country are waiting to see just who will succeed Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael, and most probably as Taoiseach.

So far, two names have dominated the debate as to who will take over from the now visibly diminished and weakened Kenny — Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald too has openly spoken of her desire to lead.

But another name has more recently entered the fray. That of Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe.

Re-elected to Dublin Central against the odds in February, Donohoe recently said in an interview with this newspaper that he would not be putting his name forward to contest the race to succeed Kenny, whenever he steps down.

While certainly not directly comparing Donohoe to the villainous Urquhart, the denials of interest in the top job at this early stage in a process of transition echo loudly the similar utterances from the fictional Tory leader.

Donohoe, speaking to me, said he is ambitious — but for the big job he has at the moment and for the country.

But his denials have not fully quelled the calls for him to put himself in the race.

It seems Donohoe is favoured by both Kenny and his fellow veteran, Finance Minister Michael Noonan, to take over as leader of Fine Gael.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan
Finance Minister Michael Noonan

An interesting story in last week’s Sunday Times by Stephen O’Brien revealed that Fine Gael sources expect that Donohoe could still come under pressure from Kenny loyalists to stand when the leadership contest arises.

Sources in Fine Gael and Labour confirmed to O’Brien that Noonan and Kenny revealed their preference for Donohoe to Brendan Howlin, the Labour leader.

In April, the Taoiseach and finance minister dined with Howlin and Joan Burton, Labour leader at the time, in a restaurant near Government Buildings to press the Fine Gael case for Labour to support a minority government.

After Burton left, the other three continued their discussion after dinner. Howlin asked the two men who their preferred successor as Fine Gael leader would be, and both named Donohoe. Details of the exchange permeated Leinster House in the following weeks, O’Brien’s story stated. So the question has to be asked, are Donohoe’s denials credible?

Well, in my mind, Fine Gael could do an awful lot worse than select Donohoe as its next leader. Well-read and smart, with a business background, Donohoe ground out his re-election in Dublin Central having lost two thirds of his 2011 vote base.

This victory has propelled him centre stage in this minority Government, and while many Fine Gael ministers can be arrogant and abrasive, Donohoe’s easy, friendly manner has allowed him earn respect across the floor of the Dáil.

Having opposed Kenny in the 2010 heave, Donohoe has certainly done all he can to win back his leader’s favour.

Since 2013, Kenny has promoted him three times; a sign any animosity has been overcome. But what are his chances, given how long Varadkar and Coveney have been linked with the top job?

Paschal Donohoe can’t be written off as Enda Kenny successor

It is certainly helpful for the pair if other names are being thrown into the mix. It is never helpful to be a sure thing or for people to think it’s a given you will become leader.

Many think it will boil down to a race between Varadkar and Coveney. For his part, Coveney has the benefit of being a non-Dublin TD with a strong rural base, which is very important, particularly to many within Fine Gael.

Though seen as somewhat aloof and overly cautious, Coveney is also seen as a true blue, a safe pair of hands.

Conservative Fine Gaelers will sleep easily at night with him at the helm.

But under Fine Gael rules, even though ordinary members will have a vote, because of a weighting system, the members of the parliamentary party will have a much greater say.

Since becoming a minister, Varadkar has been at pains to ensure he looks after TDs and senators.

He has always ensured to keep his Wednesday nights to interact with his party colleagues. He also has regularly brought TDs out with him on social nights to the Leopardstown races in his bid to become leader.

Several opinion polls have shown Varadkar as more popular with the electorate; and his willingness to break ranks with his colleagues has certainly made him a media darling to some. He certainly got a soft ride during his very mixed time in the Department of Health.

Any contest will be close.

As for Donohoe, there is no doubt he has a lot to offer, not just to his party but to the country in government.

He has experience and capability, which isn’t always as common as one would like to see in national politicians.

But while he has a broad appeal, there are those within his party who resent his rapid rise through the ranks.

They think his ‘class prefect’ or ‘best boy in class’ image is irritating and some have said he doesn’t have the gravitas to become leader.

An interesting statement from some who have pledged undying loyalty to the lightweight Kenny for years.

But beneath the friendly smile and warm persona is a steeliness which has served Donohoe well to date.

Paschal Donohoe can’t be written off as Enda Kenny successor

As transport minister, he stared down unions striking in Irish Rail and also showed a steady hand in his handling of the sale of Aer Lingus, which had the potential to become politically toxic.

Now in the hot seat as the minister for cuts and giveaways (depending on the finances), the budget will be his first real opportunity to make his mark.

As for the leadership, maybe he feels he would be better off supporting either Varadkar or Coveney — for the moment.

If whoever takes over is unsuccessful, Donohoe would then be in a great position to contend for the top job.

A young man still, Donohoe turns 42 in September, so he has plenty of time to consider his strong ambitions if this indeed is not to be his time.

So in the words of Francis Urquhart, to those who say Donohoe should contest the leadership, you might very well think that, but he could not possibly comment.


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