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After voters rejected him, can Enda Kenny survive?

Analysis: The Taoiseach remains the Taoiseach for now, but his position as Fine Gael leader will come under scrutiny in the coming weeks.

Enda Kenny in Castlebar on Saturday night
Enda Kenny in Castlebar on Saturday night
Image: Orla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be this way for Enda Kenny.

Had things gone to plan for Fine Gael, and indeed Labour, in this election, the Dáil’s longest-serving TD would lead his party into a historic second consecutive term.

Then, in around two years’ time and in an orderly fashion, he would hand over power to a handpicked successor – possibly Frances Fitzgerald – and head off either into retirement, a plum European job or even a run for the Áras (although he always ruled it out in public).

But things rarely work out the way you hope in politics.

Enda Kenny returns to the 32nd Dáil leading a party that will be over 20 seats short of the 76 it won in 2011 – its best ever election result. A bruising five years saw their number of TDs reduce to 66 for a variety of reasons (five deputies left over the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act).

This election has seen the party lose some big names, including deputy leader James Reilly. Ministers past and present including Alan Shatter, Paudie Coffey, Tom Hayes, and John Perry have all been vanquished as have high-profile names such as Jerry Buttimer.

A bad day for Fine Gael followed a bad campaign in which the party never got its message right. Kenny in particular performed poorly. On day one he had his ‘economic jargon’ gaffe, then there was the fiscal space row, his ‘whingers’ comment in Castlebar, and the McNulty debacle even came back to haunt him in the final TV debate.

That’s not to mention the fact it took him 13 times to rule Michael Lowry out of any post-election deal. What different circumstances they were… when Fine Gael and Labour were viewed as possibly needing only a handful of independents to return to government.

The outcome has been wildly different.

Instead the Taoiseach failed to get his government re-elected. He will remain in the top job for the short-term and until such time as a new one is elected by the Dáil. It could yet be him, but that and his long-term future are far from clear.

It is highly likely that Kenny’s 14-year stint as Fine Gael leader is coming to a close. One optimistic, well-placed party source suggested yesterday that could be 18 months down the line. The more likely scenario is that it will be much sooner.

On Saturday night in Castlebar, Kenny said that as the head of government he has a responsibility to look at the options for the next government, telling reporters:

I want to wait and see what the eventual final outcome will be and then look at all of the options that are open to me as Taoiseach and head of government.

Kenny is assuming the position that as leader of the country it is incumbent upon him to seek to form a government. But doing that is the hard part.

One of the principal barriers to a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil arrangement of any sort is the promise of the latter to sack this government and to certainly oust the increasingly unpopular Kenny.

It’s difficult to see how Micheál Martin could bring himself to support Kenny as Taoiseach – or even abstain on Dáil vote – given his merciless criticism of the Fine Gael leader for the past five years. However, like most things in politics, it is not impossible.

Fianna Fáil’s strategy when the Dáil returns on 10 March might be to damage Kenny and ensure that no one is immediately elected Taoiseach. The house might then adjourn for further, possibly protracted, talks while Kenny and government remains on in a caretaker role.

If a minority Fine Gael government emerges with the support of Fianna Fáil then Kenny may well lead it initially but the moves to replace him will not be far off. He may see the writing on the wall himself and try to hand over power in an orderly fashion.

The contenders remain Fitzgerald and the two young(ish) guns, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Their statements and comments should be scrutinised closely in the coming days for signs of any attempt to unseat their boss.

Already, Varadkar’s remark last night that “the opposition now also have an obligation to form a government” was seen as a contradiction of Kenny’s position.

The bottom line is that while Enda Kenny may be safe in the short-term, he almost certainly has no long-term future as Fine Gael leader.

Poll: Should Enda step down as Fine Gael leader?

Read: Enda the line? Bruton backs his leader after Fine Gael slump

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