AND so the Taoiseach has been forced into the point of belated contrition in an effort to contain a controversy that escalated well beyond his control.
After two attempts to defend his handling of his nomination for the Seanad by-election, Enda Kenny last night put his hands up and admitted he got it wrong. “I wouldn’t say it was my finest hour and I take full responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is,” he said.
It was an attempt to draw a line under a controversy that has rumbled on since it emerged his Seanad nominee, John McNulty, was appointed to a state board just days before his nomination papers were handed in.
More crucially, it was also an attempt to take the heat off Arts Minister Heather Humphreys, who made the appointment to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma).
The first-time TD from the Cavan-Monaghan constituency was Mr Kenny’s surprise promotion to the senior ranks of Cabinet in his July reshuffle — and now appears to be under serious pressure as a result of this controversy.
Her lack of experience was exposed this week as she tried to avoid any questions surrounding the appointment during her poor performances in the Seanad on Tuesday night and when facing the media on Thursday. One Fine Gael TD, John Deasy, described Wednesday’s meeting of the parliamentary party — where she did not answer questions on the issue — as “embarrassing”.
Mr Kenny’s comments, aimed at shielding Ms Humphreys from further political onslaught, are at odds with what he said 24 hours earlier, when he placed responsibility for the appointment firmly at her door.
Speaking at the National Ploughing Championships on Thursday, Mr Kenny denied that he or his party instructed the appointment: “I have never given an instruction for a minister to make an appointment.”
Speaking in Roscommon yesterday evening, however, Mr Kenny said he takes “full responsibility” although it is not precisely clear what for.
This prompted one backbench TD to call on Ms Humphreys to state whether she was responsible for the appointment or if it was the Taoiseach. “Enda Kenny has a different story yesterday from today,” said Ms Humphreys’ constituency colleague, Seán Conlan.
“The parliamentary party want to hold the Taoiseach to account. We expect answers from him and we expect answers from the Minister for the Arts.”
It was widely suggested that Mr McNulty was placed on the Imma board to either boost or establish his credentials for the cultural panel of the Seanad.
“For the minister to take instructions on an important role such as this would be a gross breach of her responsibility as a member of the Cabinet,” Fianna Fáil senator Thomas Byrne said.
“This appointment was part of an electoral ploy. I do not know whether the minister has looked at the Standards in Public Office code of conduct for office holders in respect of appointments to boards, but I have to say that my view is that she has skirted its requirements,” he said.
These rules state that “appointments by members of the Government should be made on the basis of merit, taking into account the skills, qualifications, and experience of the person to be appointed”.
Interpretations of this section of the code of ethics are subjective. But unless Ms Humphreys provides a clearer explanation of what happened, there is reason for believing Mr McNulty was appointed to the board for electoral reasons.
The Taoiseach might have admitted he got it wrong, but there are still many unanswered questions.