Fine Gael: A party with two political corpses left in charge

With its own TDs proclaiming Enda Kenny and his new, old deputy James Reilly as dead men walking, Fine Gael is in open revolt. It’s just a matter of when Kenny — stubborn, vengeful, but isolated — decides to depart, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
Fine Gael: A party with two political corpses left in charge

AT Wednesday night’s meeting of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party, concern was raised that reports of the gathering were appearing online before the meeting had concluded.

Party chairman Martin Heydon suggested phones might have to be thrown in a bucket in order to stop the leaks.

At this point, according to sources, senator Michelle Mulherin mischievously asked, to some hilarity: “What’s next, our keys?”

On a more serious note, the meeting marked the beginning of the end for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and as leader of Fine Gael.

It was significant that, for the first time since the botched heave in 2010, Kenny’s position as leader was openly called into question.

A succession of disgruntled TDs vented their fury at their embattled leader, who is having a week to forget.

Humiliated by Arlene Foster of the DUP on Monday, humbled by Transport Minister Shane Ross on Tuesday, Kenny was chastened by his colleagues who fired the gun on the Taoiseach’s tenure.

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster

In a pointed jibe at Kenny, Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd called for “new leadership” within Fine Gael, with several calls for Kenny to stand up to Ross, a member of the Independent Alliance.

At the meeting, at least five other TDs — including Kerry’s Brendan Griffin, Carlow-Kilkenny’s Pat Deering, and Louth’s Peter Fitzpatrick — were damning in their criticism of the direction of the party at present.

Cork South West TD Jim Daly and Clare TD Pat Deering both criticised the Taoiseach’s failure to “stand up” to Ross on the abortion bill.

Yes, many of those who spoke out have been passed over for promotion and this may in part explain their unhappiness, but the manner, tone, and timing of the criticisms are hugely problematic for Kenny.

With just two weeks to go to the Dáil recess, this now looks set to be the dominant domestic political story for the summer.

Jim Daly

Jim Daly

Several also noted the lack of support for Kenny in the room from his loyal supporters, as has been the norm on previous occasions when under fire.

“It was like they didn’t want to annoy or upset any potential successor. That hasn’t happened before,” said one source.

Yesterday morning, with a new, disastrous opinion poll ringing loudly in his ears, Daly took to the airwaves to publicly articulate his concerns.

He went further by putting a time as to when he expects his leader to go, namely after the budget.

Around Leinster House yesterday, Daly’s post-budget timeline for a leadership change was widely referred to and accepted, even among some of Kenny’s most slavish supporters.

Wexford TD Michael Darcy added fuel to the fire by saying the party was “drifting” and needs fresh direction.

Significantly, Martin Heydon said there now needs to be an orderly succession process.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney, one of the key challengers to become leader, suggested that sooner rather than later, Kenny will be on his way.

“There will be a time in the not-too-distant future, I expect, when leadership is going to have to be discussed in Fine Gael, but I don’t see why we will have to have a long, drawn-out process that actually distracts Government away from the core issues it needs to focus on for Irish people,” said Coveney.

Kenny, according to those close to him, is “tired and cranky” given the turbulence of this year and it has taken its toll.

Kenny has been leader of Fine Gael for 14 years and, looking back, not one of those years has been easy.

He, too, is now running low on close friends who would be loyal to him.

Compare the current Cabinet to his first one in 2011 and he has lost his main backers.

Phil Hogan is gone; so too Alan Shatter, who is no longer a fan of the Taoiseach; and James Reilly is gone from cabinet and the Dáil.

James Reilly

James Reilly

Quite a few of those sitting around Kenny at the Cabinet table opposed him in the botched 2010 heave.

They include Charlie Flanagan, Richard Bruton, Leo Varadkar, and Paschal Donohoe.

This may partly explain his decision to appoint senator James Reilly as deputy leader, despite the ex-minister’s failure to be re-elected to the Dáil.

The feeling around Leinster House yesterday was that Reilly “must have the goods on Enda” as there was no other obvious reason for the appointment.

To say there is some bemusement among the party is an understatement.

One somewhat unkind TD quipped: “Now we are led by two political corpses.”

But even Reilly appeared to try and distance himself from Kenny by insisting his “first loyalty is to the party”, and not the leader.

Kenny has rescued his party from annihilation in 2002 and led them to a stunning victory in 2011.

He has proved himself to be an able if overly tribal, stubborn, and vengeful leader and has achieved his goal of being the first Fine Gael leader re-elected as Taoiseach.

But, aged 65, he is now standing as an isolated, weakened figure facing the prospect of departing the top job earlier than expected.

The race to succeed him is now firmly on.

The king is dead, long live the king.

Opening shots fired in Fine Gael leadership succession race

Since Fine Gael’s disastrous general election, the Fine Gael leadership has been a much-discussed issue in the corridors of Leinster House and in many a bar close to the Dáil.

Who will go? Who is likely to win? These are the questions everyone has been asking.

Of course, it is primarily a two-horse race to succeed Enda Kenny as leader of the party, but two others could yet mount a challenge.

Ministers Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are considered the front-runners to replace Kenny.

Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney

Coveney, seen as probably a safer pair of hands than Varadkar, was pointed in his comments that a process to replace Kenny will have to happen in the “not too distant future”.

“Fine Gael needs to think ahead,” he said. “We need to think about an election in a few years time and there are all sorts of issues internally in the party that need to be discussed and debated and resolved in that context.”

Varadkar confirmed, too, that he is interested in the leadership, but insisted his party leader must be allowed come to his own decision. Kenny and Varadkar are not close and Leo is known to be distrustful of his leader. He also knows he is too fiery for some in the party, who may decide to plump for Coveney instead.

Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

However, Varadkar is a man of intelligence and is not afraid to speak his mind, often to the outrage of his colleagues. He is a man of conviction and has shown a tenacious streak in some of his policy announcements.

His demotion from the Department of Health to Social Protection has left him with plenty to think about.

However, Coveney and Varadkar are nervous about being seen to push Kenny prematurely, with the botched heave of 2010 looming large in their memory, but, in recent weeks, they have been subtly letting TDs and senators know of their desire to be considered as leader of the party.

Quiet chats one-to-one, cups of coffee, and speedy responses to phonecalls have been the order of the day.

However, while they are the front-runners, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald cannot be fully discounted as a contender.

Frances Fitzgerald

Frances Fitzgerald

In an interview last year, Fitzgerald spoke of her desire to lead and there is a body of opinion that FG is ready for a female leader.

The only negative for Fitzgerald is her age. She is a year older than the 65-year-old Enda Kenny, but it is also fair to say that not everyone in Fine Gael is convinced about her ability and capacity for high office.

The outside bet for the leadership is Paschal Donohoe, the public expenditure minister.

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe

While he has publically ruled himself out of contention, he is no less ambitious than the other three.

Young, intelligent, and well-liked, Donohoe could fulfil the role of a compromise candidate and the party could do much worse than turn to him.

His impressive feat of holding his seat in a radically redrawn Dublin Central constituency proved that he does have appeal in areas where Fine Gaelis not traditionally strong.

While there will be months of speculation ahead, the one thing we are certain of is that the race to become the next leader of Fine Gael and, possibly, Taoiseach is on.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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