THERE’S a line in the popular action film Mission: Impossible when an espionage operation goes wrong and the leading character frantically shouts: “Abort, abort.”
Some of the rebels within the Fine Gael camp must have desperately wished they could do likewise this week and abort the leadership heave as it began to go disastrously wrong.
Even before Thursday afternoon’s vote on the motion of confidence in party leader Enda Kenny, the rebels who wanted to oust him seemed to know the game was up.
On lunchtime Thursday, shortly before the vote was scheduled to begin, one of the rebel frontbenchers sat in the Dáil restaurant and asked journalists how they thought it would go – the insider was asking the outsiders.
It summed up how unsure of themselves those in the Richard Bruton camp were. It seemed as if the rebel frontbencher was simply looking for something – anything – to keep his spirits up momentarily and avoid the inevitable conclusion that he was going to lose.
Lose and suffer the consequences.
A moment later, he seemed to acknowledge as much. An assistant, he said, had drawn up a list of things he could do on the backbenches in a bid to rebuild his political career…
THE heave had seemed a much better idea last week, when an opinion poll was published showing that Fine Gael had fallen to second place behind Labour.
It was just a single poll, most people around Leinster House believed it to be inaccurate, and its authors acknowledged that the time had come to change the methodology by which the numbers were arrived at.
Nonetheless, it proved the turning point for Richard Bruton, who had been harbouring doubts about Mr Kenny’s leadership for many months – despite the fact that a long succession of previous polls had Fine Gael comfortably in first place.
When precisely did those doubts start? Only Richard Bruton can say for sure. But there were some hints. In an August 2009 interview with Hot Press magazine, Mr Bruton admitted that Mr Kenny was “a bit wooden”. The description surprised nobody, for critics had been saying much the same thing about Mr Kenny for years. But the fact it came from the deputy leader of the party did raise some eyebrows.
His own dissatisfaction with Mr Kenny’s leadership was clearly growing. And last week’s poll, and perhaps the whispering of some colleagues, finally convinced him it was time to take Enda Kenny out.
The Sunday morning newspapers carried broadly similar stories: that Richard Bruton was preparing a coup. Mr Kenny’s camp already knew the plot was forming, but now swung into action in a desperate bid to counteract it.
Phil Hogan was in Britain for Fine Gael’s annual London golf classic, which was to take place the following day. But thoughts of golf took a back seat, as Mr Hogan took to the phone and made numerous calls.
Among them were calls to Richard Bruton, urging him to pull back. But Mr Bruton, who by then had already been lining up frontbenchers to support him, was not for turning.
Later on Sunday, Mr Kenny travelled from Castlebar to meet with Mr Bruton face-to-face in Fine Gael headquarters in Dublin.
The meeting was reportedly civil, but Mr Bruton made it clear he had lost all confidence in Mr Kenny’s leadership, and urged him to go quietly to prevent blood being spilt.
As a sweetener, Mr Bruton suggested that, were he to become party leader and eventually Taoiseach, he would appoint Mr Kenny as Foreign Affairs Minister in his Cabinet. Mr Kenny didn’t bite.
Since taking over the party in 2002, he had set his sights on the top job, and believed he was now within reach, no matter what the latest poll had said. He made it clear he was going to fight – and the ferocity of that fight would catch Mr Bruton completely off-guard.
By early Monday, Mr Bruton had still not made clear publicly whether he would proceed with the heave. But the issue was now causing chaos within Fine Gael.
It was the perfect distraction for Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil, as the Taoiseach was facing a no-confidence motion in the Dáil the next day. Suddenly, nobody was paying attention to the no-confidence motion – Fine Gael was the only game in town.
Fianna Fáil insiders were delighted, but circumspect. On one hand, there was a chance Fine Gael would implode, which was to their immense advantage. On the other, there was a very real chance Richard Bruton would become leader, and even though his own Dáil and media performances were occasionally “wooden” too, Fianna Fáil respected Mr Bruton as a talented finance spokesman and believed he would make a stronger opposition leader.
Mr Kenny, on the other hand, had long been cruelly dubbed “Agent Enda” by Fianna Fáil because of their belief that he was actually damaging Fine Gael’s electoral prospects.
“Enda is our secret weapon,” one Fianna Fáil source said. “We believe that if Enda wasn’t leader, Fine Gael would be miles ahead of us.
“The best outcome for us is that Enda survives and Richard is relegated to the backbenches. But that’s the dream scenario.”
As it turned out, Fianna Fáil’s dream came true just hours later. Faced with the reality that Mr Bruton would push ahead with the heave, Mr Kenny sacked him as deputy leader and finance spokesman. Now it was all-out war.
The main elements of the battle from the time of Mr Bruton’s sacking to Thursday’s parliamentary party vote have been well documented by now. Both the Kenny and Bruton camps frantically courted TDs, senators and MEPs in order to win the vote. Suspicions grew on both sides about the prospect of declared supporters using the confidentiality of the secret ballot to switch allegiances.
One Fine Gael parliamentary party member privately told this paper on Tuesday night he intended to vote for Mr Bruton. The following morning, he declared publicly for Mr Kenny. But the Kenny camp clearly had their own suspicions, and a source within the camp muttered about how the parliamentary party member in question would be frogmarched to the ballot box and monitored until he put his tick next to Mr Kenny’s name. It was just cynical humour, of course, as nobody was going to interfere with the democratic process. But it nonetheless revealed the strains inside Fine Gael as both camps jockeyed desperately for votes.
Ultimately, the Kenny camp fought harder, tougher and smarter. They made a much better job of courting the party’s TDs, senators and MEPs for the necessary votes. And they were simply more ruthless, the sacking of Mr Bruton being just one example which appeared to completely stun his supporters.
And although both sides did their best to remain civil in public, behind the scenes things were getting increasingly nasty.
One Bruton supporter was asked, in the eventuality of his man winning and forming a shadow cabinet, what would happen to the prominent frontbenchers Alan Shatter, James Reilly and Phil Hogan, all of whom were supporting Mr Kenny.
The reply? “Alan Shatter and James Reilly will be fine.”
A Cork councillor who had declared her support for Mr Bruton, meanwhile, told of receiving an “unpleasant” anonymous voicemail. The caller’s message? “What goes around, comes around.”
The format of the crucial parliamentary party meeting was brilliantly engineered by Mr Kenny’s camp and saw the party leader speak both first and last, giving him a significant advantage.
Much was made after the meeting about his concluding address, and how it won a standing ovation. In the aftermath of Mr Kenny’s ballot victory, members of both camps were quick to point to this standing ovation as evidence relations had not soured and that Mr Kenny was respected.
But it’s worth considering precisely how that standing ovation would have occurred, according to some of those present.
Once he finished his address, Mr Kenny’s supporters would have instantly risen to applaud him. At that point, those who were secretly for Mr Bruton – and who didn’t want to reveal their voting intentions – would have had little choice but to stand up and applaud too to cover their tracks. Mr Bruton’s publicly declared supporters, meanwhile, wouldn’t have wanted to seem ungracious.
Hence the standing ovation from all present. But party members privately concede it may take some considerable time for the wounds caused by the botched heave to heal.
As Enda Kenny himself wrote in this paper this week: “(This is) the biggest political miscalculation that I have seen in 35 years in national politics.” But it now falls to him to try and undo the damage it caused.
By Conor Ryan, Political Correspondent
DENIS NAUGHTEN led out the rebel frontbenchers on Tuesday and may live to regret that decision for a long time.
As a west of Ireland TD, he broke the unwritten understanding that neighbours would work together to secure a taoiseach for the region.
Elsewhere the alliance was more solid.
Padraic McCormack, Galway west; Frank Feighan, Roscommon Leitrim; and Paul Connaughton, Galway east, all stuck to the message.
But the big winner was Senator Ciaran Cannon, the former PD who backed the leader and gave a speech supporting him.
He won friends in the party and will be able to curry favour when the decisions are being made about arrangements in Galway east.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames was nowhere near as shrewd and will not enjoy the same level of patronage.
In Cannon’s constituency, Ulick Burke went for Richard Bruton to further sour his relationship with party HQ.
In Donegal, Joe McHugh went with Bruton and lost any hope of getting even a junior spokesperson position. Lucrative future roles may instead go to his neighbour Dinny McGinley, who was among the first to back Kenny.
However, the real rock for Kenny was the Mayo contingent. His constituency rival Michael Ring played a blinder to lay down old annoyances to defend his leader as if he was his friend. His frontbench position is copper-fastened.
Similarly John O’Mahony and Senator Paddy Burke, who as strategists could not have done more.
They rolled up their sleeves to press TDs and reminded windy senators just who would butter their bread.
But they have not much more to gain, beyond knowing their county man is in the top job.
PHIL HOGAN in the heart of Carlow Kilkenny had one of his best weeks in a long political career as he orchestrated Enda Kenny’s stunning campaign.
He will use it to taunt his county colleague, young senator and former MEP candidate John Paul Phelan, as they fight for seats in the next election.
In Wexford, the fascinating face-off between Paul Kehoe, who was for Kenny, and Michael D’Arcy, who was for Bruton, saw the party whip regain his raised status. But D’Arcy’s strong media performances for the rebels will give Kenny cause for thought about his potential.
The eternal animosity between Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd and his county colleague Mairead McGuinness, MEP, only worsened after they found themselves on opposite sides once again.
However, for once O’Dowd lost out and was the first of the frontbenchers to back Bruton. However, for regional reasons and the fact he was more restrained in his criticism of Kenny he has good prospects of a return to the frontbench.
Two other losers were former high-fliers Olywn Enright and Charlie Flanagan in Laois Offaly.
Flanagan in particular defected from the Kenny camp and let his position hang for so long his announcement was a cruel blow for the leader.
Meath was another county split down the middle and Damien English will get his comeuppance for backing Bruton. Shane McEntee was passionate and loyal but is unlikely to be promoted.
Wicklow will be left without anything after both its TDs went with Bruton.
KIERAN O’DONNELL, briefly the finance spokesman for Fine Gael, was the biggest loser.
Headquarters were seething at the first-time TD’s perceived betrayal of his leader after he was appointed to replace Richard Bruton. Two days later he defected to the rebels.
If, as expected, he is demoted there could be the further indignation of watching constituency colleague Michael Noonan promoted to a prominent portfolio.
In Cork south central, Deirdre Clune stuck with Kenny and would be expected to elbow out Simon Coveney.
However, Coveney is one of the party favourites and would be a safer man for Kenny to have around than some of the other plotters.
In Clare, Pat Breen may be forced to surrender seniority to loyalist Joe Carey.
And in Waterford John Deasy has always been a rebel so his inside outsider status will not be affected.
With a shortage of experience, and profile, among his supporters Kenny may lean on the likes of Bernard Allen in Cork north central or Tom Hayes in Tipperary south to bolster his hand. Although this would bring Allen away from his chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee.
Kerry proved as loyal as Mayo, with senators, TDs and MEP Sean Kelly all sticking with the leader.
Jimmy Deenihan soldiered bravely for his man and it should guarantee him a cabinet post if Fine Gael won an outright majority.
In Cork north east Michael Creed will kick himself for surrendering his total control of the agriculture brief.
But, for geographic reasons as much as anything, he could be one of the rebels to be offered his job back.
In Cork east Senator Paul Bradford has been left in difficult position because the notoriously tight constituency would require support and resources from headquarters in the next election.
ENDA KENNY will have to stick his hand in the hornet’s nest if he is to select an acceptable quota of Dublin spokespeople.
Along the M50 belt he witnessed the defection of Leo Varadkar, Brian Hayes and Olivia Mitchell.
One of them, probably Varadkar, will have to return after a dressing down. Hayes would be a more seasoned operator but his position as the brains of the Bruton camp will invite extra punishment.
North of the Liffey the Fine Gael structure has been ripped apart. Dr James Reilly will continue to anchor the area but there is no obvious support among the loyalists. The novice Terence Flanagan might get the nod on account that he never spoke out publicly against the leader, even though he backed Bruton.
There was only one representative in the city centre vicinity, Catherine Byrne in Dublin South Central, who backed Mr Kenny.
She has never featured in promotion talk. So the leader is likely to either reappoint Bruton to a lesser role or, even more unlikely, give the ambitious Lucinda Creighton a promotion. She does not have an easy relationship with Kenny.
The promising senator Paschal Donohoe, eyeing a seat in Dublin Central, will have a lot of licking up to do after his leader gave him such prominence from a Seanad position. But he should recover despite being considered ungrateful.
The wily Sean Barrett, from Dun Laoghaire, would have the gravitas for a frontbench but not the popular personality.
Olivia Mitchell will see her frontbench position whipped from her while constituency colleague Alan Shatter will land a big promotion for his loyalty, most likely to the justice portfolio.