DANIEL MCCONNELL: Payback time for Enda as Leo rushes into crisis

The appointment of Máire Whelan as Attorney General was a parting shot from Enda Kenny that new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar handled poorly, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Enda Kenny must be delighted with himself.

His last-minute grenade of Máire Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal last Tuesday week has denied successor Leo Varadkar the honeymoon period he would have wanted.

His tenure as Ireland’s first openly hipster leader has been, to say the least, a baptism of fire.

Mr Kenny, now unburdened by the pressures of office, can spend his time cycling around Dublin in retro Mayo tracksuits with a backward-facing baseball cap, content that his stroke has caused maximum chaos.

The reason that Mr Kenny would be so chuffed with himself is that he owed Leo a major dose of payback.

It would be fair to say that the former taoiseach was never much of a fan of the young buck.

Much of it dates back to the failed heave in 2010, when Leo went very personal in his criticisms and attacks on Mr Kenny.

Mr Varadkar landed a low blow on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

“A leader has to convince the people that he can serve as their taoiseach,” he said. “Unfortunately, over the last eight years, and it is not just one opinion poll, Mr Kenny hasn’t been able to do that.

“It is not that I have lost confidence in him; the public does not have confidence in him. Unfortunately, that is the truth and it is something we all know; it is something you know. And I had to ask myself that key question, the 3am question.

“If we’re in government and there’s a national crisis, a sovereign debt crisis, and if Patrick Honohan lifts up the phone at 3am and rings the taoiseach, who do I want to answer that phone?”

As typically blunt as Mr Varadkar can be, the implication was clear. Mr Kenny was not fit to be taoiseach.

That insult, more than any other, stung Mr Kenny, and he has waited a long time to settle the score.

Now he has, in style.

Last weekend, by moving to have Ms Whelan’s appointment ratified by President Michael D Higgins, Mr Varadkar ensured that the crisis was no longer Mr Kenny’s but his.

He had to take control of the situation and kill off the controversy.

Most significantly, he could not be seen to call into question Ms Whelan’s nomination, or call it off. He had to back it fully and try and claim it was appropriate, meritorious, and correct.

But Mr Varadkar made a rookie mistake.

Former Blair adviser Jonathan Powell, in his book The New Machiavelli, concludes: “Prudent leaders should never allow themselves to be rushed into decisions and should always demand to see all the available facts and hear all the arguments before they decide.”

It is clear Mr Varadkar allowed himself to be rushed into this crisis.

Worse still, the crisis has seen relations between Mr Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin plummet at the first fence during their inaugural Leaders’ Questions.

On Tuesday, spiky exchanges in the Dáil culminated in Mr Martin going for the jugular in criticising Ms Whelan, saying she was “no Frank Clarke, no Adrian Hardiman”.

Cabinet ministers and senior Fianna Fáil figures were genuinely taken aback at the fiery nature of the exchanges, with many openly saying “it’s time to get the posters ready” — i.e. it is time to be ready for a general election.

But it was the exchange between Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin that has raised the alarm.

Between each other, the two men managed to breach the confidence of their phone call last Sunday night.

During Leaders’ Questions on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Varadkar said he wanted to give Mr Martin “the opportunity” to withdraw the remarks.

However, Mr Martin accused the Taoiseach of bringing personality into the issue of Ms Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal.

“You invited the comparisons, not I. You did so to circumvent the issue that goes to the heart of this,” said Mr Martin.

“It was disingenuous and that’s what you were are at.”

The Fianna Fáil leader adding that “a bit of straight talking” was now required as he continued to call for explanations around the appointment.

The Taoiseach confirmed that he had spoken to Mr Martin over the phone on Sunday night, during which Mr Martin questioned Ms Whelan’s suitability for the post.

While Mr Martin’s jibe on Ms Whelan on Tuesday led to audible gasps within the Dáil chamber, there was definitely an edge there on Wednesday and that unease has continued and has spread.

Payback time for Enda as Leo rushes into crisis

Despite attending his first summit of European leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, Mr Varadkar was forced into retreat and to extend an olive branch to Mr Martin.

He said: “On the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil, obviously the week that has gone by, I don’t think has been helpful for either party, but we have a written agreement.

“That written agreement does not require that we run appointments, either judicial appointments or public appointments, by Fianna Fáil, not could it. So I don’t believe that there has been a breach of the confidence and supply agreement. I don’t see any reason now why that agreement should fall.

“But I do believe that, over the next couple of weeks, it will be necessary for us to work closely as parties and have some confidence-building moves or confidence-building gestures and I know one of the things for example that Fianna Fáil has put a real focus on is the whole issue of mental health and their desire that we establish a committee to review the implementation of promises and commitments in relation to mental health.

"And I think perhaps if we can move on some of those detailed issues in the confidence and supply agreement it can put things back on track.”

Yet, as the newspapers reported yesterday, Fianna Fáil are decidedly cool on Mr Varadkar’s approach.

Sources close to Mr Martin are clearly sceptical about the new Taoiseach’s intentions to renew relations with the party.

Preparations for a general election are now to intensify in Fianna Fáil, with a number of constituency conventions likely to be scheduled in the coming weeks to select candidates.

There were always likely to be some sparks between Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin in their opening exchanges, as each man attempted to look strong.

While fears of an early election are heightened, the point at which to worry will come in September in the run-up to the budget if the two men are still as hostile as they were this week.

Should that be the case, there will be genuine concerns as to whether a budget can be passed in October.

With Paschal Donohoe’s limited pot of gold largely spoken for already, tough decisions will have to be made and the prospects of cuts being inflicted on some budgets in the three big spending departments of health, education, and social welfare cannot be ruled out.

It will take Mr Donohoe’s considerable skill to see home a budget in such trying circumstances. Only time will tell if his boss can mind his manners and shield his contempt for Fianna Fáil until then. Otherwise, an autumn or winter election is on the cards.


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