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Could Enda really go all the way to 2021?

Analysis: The Taoiseach said again this week that he intends to serve a full second term if re-elected. But is that realistic?

OVER THE SUMMER months there was renewed speculation about Enda Kenny’s future if Fine Gael is re-elected to government next year.

Much of this was prompted by ill-advised comments his chief whip Paul Kehoe made in an interview with the Irish Examiner. Kehoe suggested that the Fine Gael leader would not just lead the party into the next election, but the one after that too.

This raised the prospect of Kenny serving as Taoiseach for a decade, as Fine Gael leader for nearly two decades, being a TD for well over 45 years – and then attempting to add to that.

Kenny has always maintained that he would serve a full second term if re-elected. Indeed he said he “would of course” in an interview with TheJournal.ie in March:

Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

After Kehoe’s comments, Kenny said he had “no intention of staying beyond the remit of the next government to be Taoiseach”.

It was subsequently reported that government sources believed that Kenny, if re-elected, would step down in 2018 once “full employment” – or 2.1 million people at work  - is achieved.

But the Taoiseach reiterated this week that he would serve a full second term. He told the Irish Independent it would be his “intention” to serve the full term of the next period in government, saying he would not seek a third term.

This appears pretty definitive and yet it does raise interesting questions about whether he could last as Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader until 2021 (assuming the election is next year, as Kenny repeatedly said it would be this week).

Much depends on the outcome of the next election and whether the coalition is re-elected with a solid parliamentary majority that ensures there isn’t another election 18 months later.

If we assume – and it’s a big assumption right now – that the government gets re-elected and goes the full five years then we face the prospect of Kenny being in power for 10 years, and nearly 20 years as leader of Fine Gael.

23/9/2015 Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD is pictured chec Enda Kenny checking his wellies at the Ploughing Championships yesterday Source: Mark Stedman

He will also be nearly 70 by the time of the next election, and some within Fine Gael believe it is unrealistic that he would go on for so long, citing those agitators within the party.

We’re not just talking about Kenny’s possible successors – Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald – but those who have fallen out with Kenny or will if they fail to get the plum cabinet or junior ministerial job next time out.

There will be a feeling among that group that replacing the leader would be good for them and, remember, politicians are big on self-preservation.

Quite a few Fine Gaelers we spoke to today weren’t surprised by Kenny’s remarks this week, but at the same time they don’t believe a second five-year term for the Taoiseach is likely.

One TD deemed it “unrealistic” today. Another said Kenny was giving the full second term line to avoid the ‘when will you retire and who will replace you’ questions during the upcoming general election campaign. Others differed, one saying the possibility was “realistic” if a stable government is formed.

One senior party figure believed the idea of setting a definitive date in the middle of the next term would only serve to give the leadership contenders “notions”.

27/4/2015. Gay Marriage Equality Referendums Kenny with his three possible successors: Simon Coveney, Frances Fitzgerald and Leo Varadkar

If they know that nothing is happening for five years, they are far less likely to position themselves or make a move on the leader.

But the truth is that Varadkar, Coveney and, just last weekend, Fitzgerald are already positioning themselves. The bombastic Sunday Independent headline – ‘Fitzgerald: I want to lead’ – was effectively the justice minister putting her cards on the table.

Varadkar’s disclosure of his sexuality at the beginning of the year was partly about introducing his personal side to the Irish public and, to some degree, seeing whether the country was ready for a gay party leader or Taoiseach.

Meanwhile, during the same-sex marriage referendum Coveney spoke often of his personal journey on the issue, how he’d gone to being against to being for it. It introduced us to a more personal side of the sometimes aloof agriculture minister.

Make no mistake, the contenders are positioning themselves and, if you look deeper into the backbenches, many TDs are already considering life after Kenny and how that might play out in the post-election landscape.

The Taoiseach is resolute in his belief that he will go the distance, but whether those within his party will allow him is another matter.

Read: ‘Not much of a f***ing ambush’: An oral history of the heave against Enda Kenny

 

 

 

 

 

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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