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What can Fine Gael learn from previous heaves against long-serving party leaders?

Fine Gael’s succession looks all very amicable at the moment but there are lessons in the past from the likes of Bertie Ahern.

OVER THE PAST week the fallout from the garda whistleblower scandal has morphed into a tug of war for the leadership of Fine Gael.

Pressure has mounted on Enda Kenny to announce when he’ll be stepping down as party leader, and last weekend Leo Varadkar stuck his head above the parapet, calling the delay “destabilising and distracting” for the party and the country.

However, Kenny moved to quell the disquiet at a party meeting on Wednesday, saying that he would clarify his future after he returns from his US St Patrick’s Day trip.

“Kenny has been given a reasonable chance to go on his own terms,” UCD Politics professor Niamh Hardiman told TheJournal.ie, when asked about this week’s events.

Kenny, as has been noted, is just weeks away from overtaking John A Costello as the longest-serving Fine Gael Taoiseach ever. He’s already the longest-serving TD in the Dáil, and has led his party since 2002.

Based on this week’s performance, the Fine Gael leader is regarded to have done enough to ward off any challenges or motions of no confidence, in the short-term at least.

When he finally does go, he’ll be able to argue that the departure was planned all along – after all, didn’t he say last year that he wouldn’t lead the party into the next general election?

Brexit Source: Brian Lawless PA Wire/PA Images

Looking back 

Recent history, however, tells us that some long-serving party leaders don’t often get the chance to pick the terms of their own departure.

Some Fianna Fáil Taoisigh – Bertie Ahern and Charles Haughey being the primary examples – most certainly got a little push from external pressures.

A lesson in acrimony

00155418_155418 Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Haughey may have had a very different career from Enda Kenny, but both were faced with a controversy late in the careers while the younger generation plotted their succession.

After the arms crisis in the late-60s saw Charles Haughey banished from the Fianna Fáil front benches, he was welcomed back into the fold in 1975, before eventually becoming Taoiseach in 1979.

After the February 1982 general election, where Haughey failed to win an overall majority, Dessie O’Malley emerged as a possible successor with his challenge reported on extensively at the time with publications such as the Irish Independent even going so far as to list the Fianna Fáil TDs who were said to be prepared to oppose Haughey.

But Haughey would survive the challenge, garnering enough support at a stormy parliamentary party meeting to force O’Malley to withdraw his leadership bid.

On-off leader of the country during the 80s, Haughey faced a series of controversies to kick off the 1990s which culminated in him eventually quitting politics.

90415298_90415298 Haughey (r) with Progressive Democrats leader Des O'Malley in 1991. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

First, he dismissed longtime friend and ally Tánaiste Brian Lenihan Snr whose credibility had been been damaged in the run up to the 1990 presidential election, after he denied making a call to President Patrick Hillery in 1982 publicly but was heard on tape telling UCD student Jim Duffy that he had had.

Next, talk of his upcoming retirement became so strong that a challenge was made to his leadership by Albert Reynolds in 1991.

Reynolds supporters Seán Power and Pádraig Flynn laid down the gauntlet to Haughey at a party meeting, calling for a motion of no-confidence in his leadership.

Despite Haughey now being in his late 60s, his supporters nevertheless rallied around him and he won in the vote of no-confidence.

The UCD Professor Niamh Hardiman says that, when a politician has been in power for so long, “there’s never an easy time for someone to leave”.

Facing such a tug-of-war for the party leadership towards the very end of his political career wasn’t the end of Haughey’s worries.

As Minister for Defence, Seán Doherty, had taken the blame for the tapping of journalists’ phones in the 1980s.

He was given the boot by Haughey when the controversy first emerged in the 1980s, but just after Haughey won the leadership battle almost a decade on, the Fianna Fáil leader was faced with a fight he couldn’t win.

In an interview with RTÉ’s Nighthawks in late 1991, Doherty laid down the bombshell that Haughey had been well aware of the phone tappings all along.

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

Coalition partners the Progressive Democrats – led by the Taoiseach’s longtime political foe O’Malley – pulled the plug as a result, and Haughey retired as party leader in January 1992.

Then, Reynolds got his wish and succeeded Haughey as Taoiseach soon after.

Bertie’s last bow

Bertie Ahern led Fianna Fáil into government for the third successive time after the general election of 2007.

This time propped up by Green Party TDs, the Taoiseach said that he would serve the full term himself and step down after that.

In reality, he would see less than a year of the five-year-term, and the Fianna Fáil party wouldn’t see it out either.

Hardiman points out that Fine Gael will be aware of how Bertie’s “long goodbye” backfired when Brian Cowen became Taoiseach and was almost immediately faced with the financial crisis.

She said: “After the circumstances around Bertie’s departure, everybody in Fine Gael is aware that a long transition wouldn’t be an advantage.”

Everything seemed very amicable when Bertie Ahern made the speech to say that he’d be stepping down as leader of Fianna Fáil in April 2008.

Bertie Ahern Resigns Ahern giving his resignation speech Source: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

Flanked by party and ministerial colleagues, he said that he was stepping down as he “longer wanted to be a distraction” to the important work of the government.

It is a matter of real concern to me that the important work of government and party is now being over shadowed by issues relating to me at the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments.
The vital interests of Ireland demand that the national dialogue of our political system address these fundamental issues and not be constantly deflected by the minutiae of my life, my lifestyle, and my finances.

He went on to emphasise that he had never accepted a corrupt payment and that his decision wasn’t motivated by “recent events”.

Just over three months before, however, he gave an interview to RTÉ’s Joe Duffy where he said he’d stay on as Taoiseach for a “good few years”.

But, as Hardiman explains, “the storm clouds were gathering”.

And then the Mahon Tribunal happened.

The tribunal (officially the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments) eventually found in 2012 that he did not truthfully account for payments of IR£165,000 made to accounts connected to him.

It was scathing in its treatment of the former Taoiseach, rejecting much of the evidence he provided in connection to a substantial number of lodgements made in the 1990s.

Although the tribunal did not make findings of corruption against Ahern, it proved hugely damaging to his reputation. He has disputed the findings.

90120692_90120692 Ahern faced persistent pressure after each appearance before the Mahon Tribunal Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

When he appeared before the Tribunal in late-2007 and early-2008, Ahern’s leadership came under sustained pressure, as controversy over his personal finances remained high on the public and political agenda.

By this time, the opposition was imploring the Taoiseach to step down. Then-Labour leader Eamon Gilmore called the situation a “national embarrassment” and implored the then-Tánaiste Brian Cowen and other senior ministers to call time on Ahern’s leadership.

While dissent against the Taoiseach from within Fianna Fáil did not get a public airing, the ongoing controversies became too much for even the “Teflon Taoiseach” to bear and he stepped down.

The first shove against Enda

But then again, Fine Gael have been here before too.

Enda Kenny unveils frontbench team Source: Julien Behal PA Archive/PA Images

Our oral history of the heave against Enda Kenny in 2010 takes a deep dive into this topic.

By this time, Enda was already a long serving leader with eight years under his belt at the helm of Fine Gael, but had already lost an election in 2007.

We all know that he’d lead the party to become Taoiseach a year later, but many within Fine Gael were sceptical, at the time, that Kenny had it what it takes.

His eventual margin of victory of Richard Bruton was kept a secret, with the ballot papers shredded, but it was all very amicable afterwards with both Kenny and Bruton posing for an handshake, of sorts.

kenny-bruton That awkward handshake Source: RTÉ

Fast forward almost seven years, and Enda has been Taoiseach for six years and Richard Bruton has served as Minister for Jobs and Minister for Education.

Next steps for Fine Gael

The above Fine Gael example arose out the party’s poor performance at the polls which is not too dissimilar to the poor poll showing today, albeit they’re now in government.

With some of Kenny’s leadership hopefuls already suggesting a timeline for his planned departure, the Taoiseach will be well aware of what lies ahead.

With figures such as Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Harris and Richard Bruton refusing to rule themselves out from challenging Enda Kenny, most seem content to play the waiting game after Wednesday’s parliamentary party meeting.

If, however, he wasn’t to clarify the timeline of his departure at that stage, those waiting in polite anticipation for the ensuing leadership battle could show their hand again.

Hardiman added that Kenny had made it “perfectly clear” that he was the man to send to Washington in a year in which Brexit and a Trump presidency dominates the wider political agenda.

He will be the leader for this important yearly event, but we don’t know yet know exactly when he’ll go or who will replace him.

Albert Reynolds and Brian Cowen succeeded Haughey and Ahern, respectively. Neither won an election.

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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