We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

Last summer, in a bout of over-enthusiastic support for his dear leader, Fine Gael TD and Government chief whip Paul Kehoe told this newspaper that Taoiseach Enda Kenny was showing no signs of slowing up.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, he batted away suggestions his party leader since 2002 may step down before the end of the next term in office — should Fine Gael be returned to power — by insisting Mr Kenny’s tenure will stretch far into the next decade.

“I believe Enda Kenny, if he is returned as taoiseach after the next general election, will serve another five years and more,” he said.

The extreme loyalty in Mr Kenny was aimed at providing further backing for a leader who, despite overseeing a recovery for some, has his critics, appears to be blunder prone when allowed to wander past an open microphone and is repeatedly the subject of rumours that Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, and Frances Fitzgerald are coveting his crown.

However, it instead led to an outcry — both from the opposition and certain sections within Fine Gael — over alleged Government arrogance and the possibility of what one coalition source labelled the “endless Enda” era, resulting in Mr Kenny having to clarify days later that he will leave before end of the lifetime of the next Dáil. Honest.

No end to the endless debate on Enda Kenny stepping down

While some TDs with an interest in who will replace him have wondered aloud whether the departure date could tie in neatly with a 2018 presidential bid, it has equally been suggested in recent months that the supposed date — like another one in early spring Mr Kenny says is “in my head” — could become a moveable feast.

The view was further underlined on Wednesday when the Taoiseach told The Last Word on Today FM that he is not getting tired of the role. It is likely to be the subject of bar-room discussions during Fine Gael’s ard fheis this weekend after Sports Minister Michael Ring re-ignited the matter yesterday.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner on Wednesday about the upcoming general election, Mr Ring — a long-time constituency colleague of his party leader in Mayo — said Mr Kenny will remain in power for at least the next five years, opening up fresh U-turn suggestions and potentially putting the ambitions of fellow ministers back on ice.

“I think he’ll [Mr Kenny] be staying the full term,” Mr Ring said. “I don’t think Fine Gael as a party or people in the party should be speculating on leadership battles when we’re fighting a general election. He is the taoiseach. We should be supporting him, not talking about if he’s going to retire or when he’s going to retire,” he said, adding “that’s what I expect”.

He said that while ambitious people in the party, who “don’t remember where Fine Gael were in 2002”, may be unhappy with the view, “we had ambitions for the Irish rugby team to win the World Cup and didn’t go any further than before”.

Michael Ring
Michael Ring

The crouch (to avoid the initial summer row), touch (to acknowledge it happened), engage (by seemingly giving a departure date) and then potentially U-turn if Mr Ring’s remarks, well, ring true, may have all the hallmarks of a political bubble discussion.

However, it also has implications for the wider public. With an election just around the corner, are we voting for a taoiseach who will serve a full term or not? If we are, what difficulties will this cause for senior ministers waiting impatiently to take the reins, who may be given difficult portfolios they are not suited to in order to reduce their short-term chances?

Crucially, what implications could this have for cabinet collegiality when it comes to ensuring the best policies possible do not fall foul of personal bitterness over when individuals’ time will finally come? Rather suitably, the endless Enda debate doesn’t look like ending any time soon.

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