Enda Kenny would only have himself to blame if career ended in murky circumstances

Enda Kenny

Fear of an election on all sides has enabled the minority government to get this far but Enda Kenny’s days as Taoiseach are coming to an end, writes Daniel McConnell

JUST when will Enda Kenny go as leader?

It was the only question being asked yesterday and it was a matter of when not if.

Everywhere you looked in Leinster House, you saw the panicked faces of TDs, ministers and backbenchers alike, fearing the threat of an imminent general election.

It was fantastic in one way to see them squirm.

On a far more serious note, the fear of an election was real, as everyone seemed to realise how fragile the edifice of this minority government actually is.

It is that fear of an election on all sides of the House which has enabled this ramshackle administration limp on this far.

No one has the money, energy or work done in terms of candidate selection in order to contest an election.

Hence, we have had seen Fianna Fáil refusing to stick the knife into Enda Kenny and claiming the mantle of responsible opposition.

It’s hogwash of course but it suits them for now to leave the Government in place.

Every week that passes, they are seeing their poll ratings nudge upward and Fine Gael’s ebb away.

The gap between the two, according to the latest Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes poll, is now 11 points. Whether it is that pronounced remains in doubt but what is not in doubt is the trend which confirms Fine Gael are on the slide and Micheál Martin’s soldiers of destiny are in the ascendancy.

With all that in mind, we are still faced with the reality of the fact that Enda Kenny’s days as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael are coming to an end.

The admission from the Taoiseach that he made up a conversation with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone has severely damaged his credibility and hastened calls for his departure.

Katherine Zappone
Katherine Zappone

The complete mishandling of the fallout of the Maurice McCabe scandal in recent days has brought the Government to the edge of collapse more than once since Monday.

Even yesterday Kenny seemed unable to find a dignified means of dealing with the crisis. Despite the crisis engulfing the Government, Mr Kenny’s press handlers sent a notice yesterday that the Taoiseach would not be taking any media questions at a major Brexit address he was giving in the Mansion House on Dublin’s Dawson St.

Having been warned that the media would nonetheless be seeking answers to the crisis at the event should he refuse to engage with reporters, the Taoiseach’s spokesperson was not for turning.

As a result, the Taoiseach was forced to run scared from reporters, skulking in and out of the event through side doors, thereby bypassing the assembled members of the fourth estate.

So much for being the most transparent Taoiseach in history as is often claimed by his press adviser.

But it was symptomatic of how febrile the atmosphere around Leinster House was yesterday.

The vista of him dodging the media also only cements the perception of him under pressure rather than standing tall and facing his detractors.

But while Kenny was dodging the media, attention was beginning to shift toward the Fine Gael party meeting.

While the leader’s fabrication of his conversation had annoyed the hell out of many of his troops, even some of his most ardent loyalists, there was a consensus that now was not the time to move against him.

“You don’t attack yourselves when you are being attacked from outside. It is time to close ranks and we will deal with the internal business later on,” said one TD to me last night.

However, a small number of Fine Gael TDs said the time for the leadership change is now only a matter of weeks away.

Noel Rock, TD for Dublin North West, repeated his call for a discussion about a change of leadership because of the threat of an early election, and given Kenny’s commitment that he will not be leading the party into the next election.

Noel Rock
Noel Rock

Another leading Fine Gael backbencher, John Paul Phelan, said the party needs to address the leadership issue within the next two months.

Speaking on his local radio station, KCLR live, Phelan said Kenny should depart as leader in the “near future” because an early general election is likely.

Phelan said the Government is in a “precarious position” and that Fine Gael TDs need to “act” in order to avoid catastrophe.

KCLR Live presenter John Masterson asked when this should happen and Mr Phelan replied: “Within six to eight weeks. I do think there should be a new leader of Fine Gael in the near future because we will probably have another general election in the near future.”

Senior ministers Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Simon Harris have been approached in recent days by Fine Gael TDs and senators deeply concerned about Mr Kenny’s leadership. Their interventions, we are told, are not part of any shadowy campaign from contenders Varadkar and Coveney to unsettle their leader. The two men were speaking their minds — totally unprompted from those people with genuine aspirations of leadership.

Maurice McCabe
Maurice McCabe 

But, Rock and Phelan, combined with John Deasy’s revelation that he told Kenny of his concerns about the party’s treatment of Maurice McCabe as far back as 2014, serve to further undermine the standing of the leader.

Each one, a minor cut which chips away at Kenny’s ability to survive.

For Coveney and Varadkar, their modus operandi so far has been to hold fire, but their respective camps are getting restless for movement.

Neither man has wanted to put a foot wrong but should either wait too long they risk letting the holy grail slip through their fingers.

While Varadkar is the widely accepted front-runner in the leadership stakes, Coveney’s slow and steady approach to the job has seen him close the gap.

Ultimately, Kenny risks ending his political career in murky circumstances, as an admitted misleader of the public, rather than bowing out gracefully last year having achieved the prize of returning Fine Gael to power.

If that happens, he will only have himself to blame.

Denials, clarification and confusion

Enda Kenny would only have himself to blame if career ended in murky circumstances

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has struggled to say what he knew about the false Tusla sex abuse claims levelled against Sgt Maurice McCabe and when.

From a flat-out denial, to a detailed account of an imaginary conversation, to three attempts to clarify the situation in 24 hours, his responses have raised more questions than answers.

Friday, February 10

After the false Tusla sex abuse claims were revealed by the Irish Examiner and RTÉ’s Prime Time programme on Thursday, and Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone’s spokesperson said she informed “relevant ministers” beforehand, a spokesperson for Mr Kenny said he only became aware of the issue when the Prime Time programme was aired.

Sunday, February 12

After the Taoiseach’s Friday position is contradicted by Ms Zappone, Mr Kenny says while he did speak with her on January 24 before she met Sergeant McCabe, and on February 7 before last week’s Cabinet meeting, he was only told she was meeting Sgt McCabe in a “private capacity”.

“She did tell me that she intended to meet with Sgt McCabe in a private capacity and that’s all I knew.

“I said to her, well if you do have a meeting make sure that you have a thorough account of it and, so when we had our [Cabinet] meeting on Tuesday I wouldn’t have been aware of any of the details of her discussions.”

Tuesday, February 14

After the position is contradicted again, Mr Kenny admits to the Dáil “I am guilty” of misrepresenting what happened.

He confirms the conversation with Ms Zappone which he described in detail on Sunday did not take place and that he was instead told of the impending scandal by his own officials.

“I might say mea cupla, because I am guilty here of not giving accurate information. I understood from thinking myself that she had asked me about meeting Sgt McCabe in the first place.

“It actually was her office that consulted with my officials, who told me. So I regret that.”

Tuesday evening, February 14

Hours later, Mr Kenny is again forced to U-turn.

Despite repeating the afternoon admission to the Dáil at the start of an evening debate to clarify what happened, after Ms Zappone’s statement again contradicts his version of events, Mr Kenny admits he was told the Zappone-McCabe meeting involved sex abuse allegations, but not the exact details:

(Start of debate) “She did not provide any of those details to me or anyone else in Government.”

(Minutes later) “Before the Cabinet meeting the minister, Deputy Zappone, said she had met with the McCabes and that the question of false allegations of sexual abuse had been made to Tusla and had been discussed by her with the McCabes.”

After it further emerges Mr Kenny told Ms Zappone the allegations he initially said were not discussed would be covered by the terms of a mooted investigation, he comes under further fire for failing to explain how he knew this as the terms are specifically limited to a garda-instigated smear campaign, not issues which may or may not have originated from the force.

Wednesday, February 15

Reading carefully from notes, Mr Kenny repeats he was told about the allegations against Sgt McCabe before last week’s Cabinet meeting, and explains he told Ms Zappone the claims would be covered by the terms of reference as the terms include an allowance for examination of potential criminal activity:

“Clearly, we were looking at the terms of reference, we had examined the terms of reference and they were produced and presented by Mr Justice O’Neill.

“Central to that was an allegation of criminal misconduct made against Sgt McCabe.

“Obviously, the discussion between the minister [Katherine Zappone] and Sgt McCabe dealt with that area. The minister did not make me aware of the existence of a Tusla file and did not comment in any detail on the conversation she had with Sergeant McCabe.”

At no stage has Mr Kenny confirmed when he was first made aware of the false sex abuse rumours against Sgt McCabe.

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