Analysis: How Kenny handled his party rebels

The Taoiseach showed leadership and political skill in handling his parliamentary party in the run-up to the Dáilvote, writes Political Correspondent Mary O’Regan

Analysis: How Kenny handled his party rebels

LOSING five TDs over the contentious legislation allowing abortion in certain circumstances was close to what the Fine Gael leadership had, from the outset, considered to be the “best-case scenario”.

Even while it was predicted in recent weeks that they would suffer a revolt of up to 10 TDs, the largely pro-life party, with a traditional, Catholic support base, had quietly been expecting to keep the losses to below half a dozen.

Although backbenchers with strong reservations about the legislation warned their vote could not be taken for granted, the higher ranks of the party were confident they could limit the damage.

Enda Kenny has demonstrated strong leadership and considerable political skill in handling his parliamentary party and seeing a relatively smooth passage of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill into Law.

A former whip himself, he is approachable and affable with his TDs while also being strict on discipline — a combination that ensured his parliamentary party did not become fractured by the contentious issue in the way it was predicted they would.

Here is how he did it:

SEEMING TO LISTEN

From the outset, the Taoiseach said he would allow “ample time” to debate the legislation and promised “every deputy would have their say” on the issue, at all stages of its passage through the Oireachtas.

He also held one to one meetings with wavering TDs in the run-up to the final vote — in some cases talking to them for an hour and a half about their concerns.

No matter how backbenchers might feel after the legislation passed, they won’t be able to say that they didn’t get a chance to air their views.

HOLDING COMMITTEE HEARINGS ON THE LEGISLATION

The first sitting of the Oireachtas Health Committee to discuss the issue early in the year was seen as important in stemming any early revolt over the issue. Initially expected to amount to nothing more than a talking shop, the informed and analytical discussions with medical and legal experts helped sway a group of more moderate Fine Gael TDs with reservations about the Bill, into believing it was the right thing to do.

The chair of the committee, the popular ex-seminarian Jerry Buttimer, struck the right balance of allowing legislators to air their views while ensuring the debate stuck to facts and expertise rather than emotion.

STANDING UP TO THE CHURCH

Rejecting a strong intervention by Cardinal Sean Brady in early May, the Taoiseach made clear that private morality should not be part of the public duty of legislators.

Enda Kenny, himself a devout Catholic, stood up to the head of the Church in this country, standing firmly for “Ireland and its people” who, he said, decide on the Constitution, and whom he has a duty to represent.

“My book is the Constitution,” he stated, laying down a marker that legislators would not be dictated to.

Once again, he accurately read the mood of the Irish people when he described himself as “a Taoiseach who happens to be Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach”.

Enda Kenny has been aware throughout the debate that while faith is personally important to the majority of Irish people and Fine Gael TDs — as, he pointed out, it is for him — there is no longer a tolerance for the church hierarchy dictating sovereign law.

 REVEALING HIS LETTERS ‘WRITTEN IN BLOOD’

As the cabinet prepared to sign off on the final version of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, in mid-June, the Taoiseach revealed to the Dáil that he had received plastic foetuses in the post and “letters written in blood” over his stance on the issue.

The comments not only served to label opponents of the legislation as abusive and irrational, but were a subtle encouragement to Fine Gael backbenchers not to allow themselves to be swayed by strong campaigning.

 ASSERTING AUTHORITY AT THE RIGHT TIME

In the week running up to the final vote, the Taoiseach adopted a more hardline approach, warning TDs that if they voted against the legislation they would not only lose the party whip but they would not run for Fine Gael in the next election.

He said rebels and potential rebels were “adult people” who should know the consequences of their actions.

“It’s regrettable to lose any member of a party. In this case I invested a lot of personal time myself over the years in working with many candidates and all of those who obviously were elected, so that’s regrettable,” he said.

But he added: “I don’t expect that they can be candidates for the Fine Gael party in the next general election. I hope I make that perfectly clear.”

He could not have been clearer: Support the bill or count the days on the opposition benches until the end of your political career.

More in this section