Enda Kenny under pressure to step down after major misjudgments

Posted By: July 11, 2016

Deaglán de Bréadún @irishcentral           July 11, 2016 

Opposition to Enda Kenny within his own party, Fine Gael, is hardening. Photo by: RollingNews.ie

Enda Kenny’s days at Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland may be numbered following a series of political misjudgments and misfortunes over the last ten days.

A terrible opinion poll showing arch rivals Fianna Fail gaining nine points, a Brexit cross border initiative that went badly wrong, a botched selection of a new Deputy Leader, a backbench revolt and fears about the loyalty of Independents in his cabinet all meant a dreadful period for the man who has led Fine Gael since 2002 and the country since 2011.

Opposition to Kenny within his own party, Fine Gael, is hardening and moves are said be under way to ensure that his time in office ends sooner rather than later.
He has previously stated that he will not be leading Fine Gael into the next general election, whenever that takes place. However, he is now coming under pressure to be more specific and set out a timeline for his departure.

Kenny is widely regarded as the most successful Fine Gael leader ever, the first to get elected taoiseach in two successive general elections. But his fortunes have taken a tumble recently, due to a combination of poor decisions and bad luck.

The current Irish government is an alliance between Fine Gael and a range of Independent members of Dáil Éireann, the main house of the Irish parliament. But since the Government does not command a majority in the Dáil, it depends for its survival on an agreement with Fianna Fáil, the main party in opposition.

Subject to certain agreed policy principles, Fianna Fáil has pledged to vote against or abstain on any motions of no confidence in the Government, that may be proposed by other opposition parties or groups, and to facilitate the passage of the annual Budget.

This agreement is meant to last until the end of 2018 but observers believe Fianna Fáil will be tempted to pull the plug if it enjoys a consistent lead over Fine Gael and other parties in the opinion polls.

Fears within Fine Gael that this could happen were greatly exacerbated by the latest poll published on July 7. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI survey showed a massive surge in support for Fianna Fáil which had gone up nine points to 33 per cent while Fine Gael dropped two points to 24 per cent and Sinn Féin went up two to 16 per cent.

Meanwhile, Kenny has suffered a series of setbacks on the political front. After the recent United Kingdom vote in favor of “Brexit”, a British exit from the European Union, Government figures were promoting the idea of a forum where parties from both sides of the Irish border would discuss the implications of the UK referendum.

A press statement issued by Kenny’s Department ahead of a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council said: “The Taoiseach will raise the possibility of developing an all -island forum with the support of political parties, North and South, to discuss the joint challenges arising from the UK decision.”

The Council was set up under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 as part of the peace process and last week’s meeting in Dublin Castle was attended by the Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party.

However, at a press conference afterwards it emerged that the forum idea was never discussed at the meeting and that there had been no contact in advance with the First Minister about the proposal. This bizarre development was widely-regarded as a gross misjudgment on the Taoiseach’s part.

There was another damaging development for the Taoiseach when Independent TDs who are in a pact with the Government faced him down in a stand-off over the issue of abortion.

Attorney General Máire Whelan had advised that a Bill proposed in the Dáil by Opposition Deputy Mick Wallace, to allow abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, was unconstitutional.

Initially, Fine Gael sources were saying that Kenny would insist that Independent Ministers Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan should abide by collective responsibility and refrain from supporting the Bill.

However, the Independents stood their ground. The voted in favor of the Bill in the Dáil although a majority of Deputies opposed it and the proposed legislation was defeated.

Under normal circumstances a Minister who voted in this way would be dismissed but in the current situation this would almost certainly have led to an immediate general election.

Kenny and Fine Gael backed down before the Dáil vote and the Cabinet simply “noted” the Attorney General’s advice while making no formal decision to oppose the Wallace Bill.

This episode was widely seen as undermining the Taoiseach’s authority and destabilizing the Government which he leads.

Meanwhile, there was another strange episode when Kenny re-appointed former health minister James Reilly as deputy leader of the Fine Gael party. Dr Reilly lost his Dáil seat in last February’s general election but has since become a Senator on the nomination of the Taoiseach.

Only a few weeks ago, Kenny said in a briefing for political correspondents that Dr Reilly was no longer deputy leader. This had not been conveyed by the Taoiseach to Dr Reilly himself who was told the news by his wife, who heard it in a report on the radio.

It was widely assumed that the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Frances Fitzgerald would then be appointed deputy leader but this did not turn out to be the case. The Taoiseach announced his decision to re-appoint Dr Reilly at a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

At the same gathering, his leadership was questioned by Dáil deputies for the first time in six years. For the present, however, it is thought that the opposition to Kenny is confined mainly to the backbenches.

However, Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty, who was appointed to the job by the Taoiseach in May, caused a stir when, in an interview with radio station LMFM, she urged the Taoiseach to clarify his plans and set out a definitive timeline for his departure. She later said that Kenny had her “full support and backing”.

Speculation is growing that Kenny will step down before the end of this year, possibly when the Dáil rises for the summer recess later this month but more likely towards the end of the year, after the October Budget.

Possible successors include Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar, Minister for Housing Simon Coveney, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald. Irish politics has rarely known such a period of uncertainty as at present.