GERARD HOWLIN: Pulling the plug on Enda as leader could send Fine Gael down drain

What is required from Fine Gael is nerve and imagination to leave its comfort zone, writes Gerard Howlin

Fine Gael is now the bull’s eye. It is as close to single- party government as the State has seen since before Fianna Fáil’s coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1989.

It seems to lack the common sense to understand that, for the party, these are the good old days. There is no imaginable outcome to the next election, even were Fine Gael to win more seats, that Fine Gael in government would have more ministers. Yet it is still not content.

The Independents serving in government are essentially friends with benefits. They may or may not politically survive the experience of having relations with Fine Gael. However, because collectively they are too disparate and too few, they will fail to provide Fine Gael with the ultimate service its coalition partners have always provided, namely a fall guy. It has been Labour’s historical role to be that fall guy for Fine Gael, the electoral sacrifice that spares it the worst of voter’s ire.

But, now enjoying more office if less government than it ever has at the cabinet table, Fine Gael will eventually face the electorate again, without having a sheep worth throwing to wolves.

This is the predicament and condition of the party now. Like the poor souls on the raft of the Medusa, they must cling to each other, and cling to the wreckage salvaged after the last election, or sink. It is clearly playing on the nerves of some of its TDs to the extent that they seem unable to understand firstly that they enjoy an advantage out of all proportion to their numbers.

Secondly, they have an imperative interest in preserving the stability of the life raft of government, only barely held together. Thirdly, any disorderly collapse in the near-term would pitch them into an election in circumstances so uncertain that less seats, rather than more, might be a likely outcome.

In those circumstances, or even much better ones, the time would not be far away in Fine Gael when they would look back on current arrangements as the furthest expanse of their reach, as distinct from their influence, ever. Hotheads, or those eager to settle old scores with Enda Kenny, might well reflect that their party leader has now attained some of the status of Gerry Adams.

He is certainly a limitation on their further progress. He has likely stayed past the point where he can do much positive good. But he is, in a world where political choice is defined as between least worst options, the least worst option now.

For Sinn Féin after Adams and Martin McGuiness, over the horizon looms the question of how discipline and unity can be preserved among career politicians who were never soldiers in an all-Ireland party in the absence of military disciple. In Fine Gael, concerns are closer to the drawing room than the battlefield but real nonetheless.

It is not certain that Fine Gael can separate from Kenny without precipitating an election. The chances of doing so successfully diminish exponentially in any circumstances where he is forcibly removed. Those veterans of the party’s 14-year exile in opposition, understand how tenuous their hold is on government.

The most telling sign in last week’s opinion poll was not a 9-point upward spike for Fianna Fáil or that Fine Gael was down 2 points — it is that, on 24%, the party has retreated to its historical redoubts of larger farmers and the better-off. In electoral terms, this is fortress Fine Gael.

Deputies such as the Communities and National Drugs Strategy minister Catherine Byrne in Dublin South Central, or a Fine Gael politician such as Seanad leader Jerry Buttimer vying to win back his seat in Cork South Central look like outliers in terms of the profile of their electoral support. More prominently, and amid the grit of the north inner city in Dublin Central, Paschal Donoghue looks like an-out-of place visitor in the plush parlour that is a now-reduced Fine Gael.

It is not the poll numbers that matter, or even the trends. They are symptoms. The underlying causes are the party’s capacity, or lack of it, to carry on a conversation outside its own comfort zone. It is part of the Fine Gael thing that is deeply at ease in its own comfort zone and notoriously incapable of disguising a lack of it, in other surrounds.

This is the paradox of being Fine Gael. Its people come from a class that consider themselves nurtured for government. But it is never the natural party of government, because those same people repeatedly fail to establish lasting roots beyond their own bailiwick.

Problems always beset governments. This one is no different. There are advantages, however.

Firstly, simply the fact of being in office provides an opportunity to set an agenda and define the tone of the public conversation. The lack of capacity to act, without an opposition willing to co-operate could be turned on its head and into a positive.

If Fianna Fáil has some of the power of government and all of the advantages of opposition, an adroit Fine Gael could seek some of the advantages of opposition, or at least a government that would act, if it were not prevented by the opposition.

All concerned are playing a delicate, tricky game, in uncertain circumstances. What is most obvious about Fine Gael now is that it is a party that seems beset with its problems, oblivious to its opportunities, and incapable of playing now, in the moment.

The fact, however unpalatable, is that the continence of Enda Kenny in the Taoiseach’s office probably prolongs the life of the Government, rather than shortens it. A change must be made of course, in time. But time, and its careful intuitive use, is of the essence in politics. Fine Gael want a new leader to head into the next election.

But a leader who is in office as Taoiseach for over a year before an election is not new and is a hostage to any number of unforeseen events.

Change in circumstances where Fianna Fáil believes it could seize the advantage is fraught with risk. The essence of the issue then will be who is blamed for opportunism, in bringing down a government.

To bundle Mr Kenny out within months of his nomination by the Dáil would be to hand that option, risk-free, to Fianna Fáil. All the blame would be Fine Gael’s. Stable government cannot be the mantra of a party in upheaval.

What is required from Fine Gael is nerve and imagination. The nerve to stand and stay, and the imagination to have a persuasive conversation beyond its own, overly upholstered comfort zone.

There are three quarters of the population not minded now to vote for them. Of those, about another 12% actually once did and perhaps there are some others, open to the possibility. It requires conversation with people they never bothered to get to know properly, not navel-gazing.

If not, these are the good old days.

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