Taoiseach Enda Kenny has suffered three blunders so far this week, and looks a weakened figure whose days are numbered, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.
‘IT IS only Tuesday, give him a break,” was Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar’s response to a question from the media yesterday as to whether his boss Taoiseach Enda Kenny is having a bad week.
The loss last night of ex-senator Joe O’Toole as chairman designate of the Government’s water commission was the third blow to the Government in 48 hours, all of which have combined to undermine Kenny’s authority.
The other two issues that have caused Kenny trouble have been his botched attempt to float an All-Ireland forum to discuss Brexit, only to be humiliated by DUP leader Arlene Foster — and his having to allow a free vote on Mick Wallace’s abortion bill.
Kenny has proven himself — not just during his time as Fine Gael leader since 2002 but also since he became Taoiseach in 2011 — to be a tenatious and dynamic politician, whose instincts as to the public mood have served him well during some troubled times.
However, the events since the weekend have left him weakened as the figurehead of government and have once again raised questions as to how long he is likely to remain, given his intention not to stand again.
Having set out his desire that all Cabinet ministers vote collectively to oppose the Wallace bill, Kenny was faced down by a defiant Independent Alliance led by Shane Ross, who insisted a free vote should apply.
Ross and junior ministers Finian McGrath and John Halligan have been unrepentent in seeking to down play the advice of Attorney General Máire Whelan, which said the bill is unconstitutional.
Halligan, during an empassioned speech last week, said he “did not care” if the bill was unconstitutional, but he could not and would not be voting against the Wallace bill.
Ross on radio on Monday morning reaffirmed the position of the alliance that they were not prepared to bend the knee to Kenny, and their demand for a free vote remained firm.
They were not for turning, and short of sacking Ross, McGrath and Halligan which would have ended the Government, Kenny had no choice but to relent.
So, a free vote will apply for those Alliance members but the battle has come at a high cost. Kenny’s express views have been rejected by members of his own Government.
Ross, has exploited Kenny’s weakness and delivered his first significant bloody nose. That has only added to the hostility within the Fine Gael ranks toward the outspoken journalist and stockbroker-turned-minister.
But, Ross’s defiance could actually come at a significant cost as reports from close to Cabinet have said Whelan has been close to considering her position in recent days.
Like Kenny, she too now stands as a damaged and weakened figure.
A precident has been laid down that her opinion as AG is not sacrosant, even if her role is set out by the Constitution.
But for Ross and the others, their argument is that this is the new politics at play. The old way of doing things has to change, and change can sometimes be painful.
The sky should not and will not fall in on foot of their ignoring the AG’s advice, but the stability of the Government has been tested.
But one could argue that Kenny should not have allowed the matter drag on for so long as he did. This issue has been brewing for almost two weeks, once it became clear Wallace’s bill had been selected for debate.
It says a lot about the poor state of relations between Fine Gael and the Independents that Kenny and Ross were not able to hammer out a deal before now.
But while the rights and wrongs of the row are arguable, what is not arguable is Kenny’s mishandling of his proposal for an All-Ireland forum on Brexit.
On Monday, Kenny as Taoiseach was spanked, spanked hard by Foster, who shot down his forum idea while standing beside the Fine Gael leader. She said nobody had ever discussed the issue with her, even though ministers had been floating the idea all weekend.
Everyone seemed to be aboard, well except the DUP. “That seemed to gather some currency over the weekend. But it was not discussed with me at any time over the weekend or indeed before. It was not discussed today,” Foster said on Monday.
“There was no proposal at the North-South Ministerial Council in relation to the forum. Therefore, there was nothing to be rejected as it were,” the North’s First Minister added.
Foster, in case she left anyone in any doubt, put the boot in.
“I believe that there are more than enough mechanisms by which we can discuss these issues on a North/South basis,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t believe there are any mechanisms needed because we can lift the phone to each other on a daily basis if that were so needed.”
A sheepish Kenny was forced into conceding his plan was in ruins.
“It wasn’t to be. Obviously, it couldn’t function effectively unless you had buy-in from everybody,” the Taoiseach added. But not without some attempt to explain his efforts. “I still think the forum suggestion is a good suggestion — I don’t believe there should be a veto,” he said.
To make such a mess of something in relation to Northern Ireland is perhaps more serious than the spat over abortion.
The Peace Process, so hard fought for and patiently supported by so many, is not something to be meddled with lightly, and Kenny mis-stepped significantly.
By floating the idea without the agreement of the DUP was a major blunder and leads to many questions as to how it was allowed to happen.
Did no one in Government realise that any suggestion of an All-Ireland forum on anything was likely to be of alarm to the northern unionist community?
Where was Charlie Flanagan’s input in this and did he as Minister for Foreign Affairs not realise the potential for difficulty?
Did he even know about it? But this smacked of an act of hubris by Kenny’s office which hopefully won’t do any lasting damage to relations north of the border at this delicate time.
Whatever the merits of such a forum, if handled badly, as it was, then it has no chance of succeeding.
His triple wallop since Monday has raised questions from within Fine Gael as to when Kenny is going to make way for his successor.
He faces his party tonight and it is expected his botched handling of the forum will be one of the issues raised.
It is only Wednesday morning, but already this has been a week to forget for a weakened Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
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