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'Not much of a f***ing ambush': An oral history of the 2010 heave against Enda Kenny

As the Taoiseach comes under fire again, this is the inside story of that coup six years ago.

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Note: This piece was first published on 17 June 2015 to mark the fifth anniversary of the heave against Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael. We republish it today as the embattled Taoiseach comes under pressure to resign his positions. 

ON 17 June 2010 Enda Kenny won a motion of confidence in his leadership of Fine Gael, seeing off a sudden and dramatic attempt by his deputy leader Richard Bruton to unseat him.

It was a career defining moment for the longest serving TD in the Dáil. In the following months Kenny – rebranded as the ‘Man of Steel’ – was able to, publicly at least, unite a fractured party and become Taoiseach on 9 March 2011.

But the extraordinary events over seven turbulent days in June 2010 could have changed all of that. Kenny faced what will likely be remembered as the biggest crisis of his Fine Gael leadership.

Over the past few months has been speaking to TDs and Senators on both sides, observers and others in an attempt to recount the story of what happened.

This is the oral history of the attempted heave against Enda Kenny…

The origins of a coup: “This was in the air for a long time.”

It was June 2010 and the Fianna Fáil-led government was stumbling from crisis to crisis amid concerns that the country was on the brink of running out of money.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny was about to table a motion of confidence in embattled Taoiseach Brian Cowen and repeat his consistent calls for a general election, but there were ongoing questions about his own leadership and his ability to succeed Cowen in Merrion Street. 

The Mayo TD had led Fine Gael for eight years, helping it recover from the disastrous 2002 general election to gain 51 seats Dáil seats five years later and position the party as an alternative government.

Election 2007 TV Debates Enda Kenny debates Bertie Ahern during the 2007 general election campaign. Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Yet there were nagging doubts about one of the Dáil’s longest serving TDs and his ability, particularly after he did not perform well in a 2007 TV debate with Bertie Ahern.

Three years on and some poor media performances at a time when the economy was the only issue, gave the impression that Kenny was weak on the detail of the nation’s finances.

In February 2010, the Fine Gael TD George Lee left the party and politics altogether less than a year after being elected. He had become disillusioned with having no input into party policy and this piled further pressure on Kenny. At a time when the economy was front-and-centre of the national discourse, Fine Gael had lost one of the brightest economic minds in the country.

Elsewhere on the opposition benches, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was seen as a better performer than Kenny in the Dáil. He had led the charge in forcing Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue to resign the previous October over an expenses controversy.

cianflah / YouTube

His performance, and that of Labour’s finance spokesperson Joan Burton, who had advised her party to oppose the bank guarantee, was paying off in the polls. Labour was outgunning Fine Gael on several fronts…  

Deaglán de Bréadún (Irish Times political correspondent): “Gilmore was seen as having forced the Ceann Comhairle out and he left Kenny standing on that issue.”

Brian Hayes (Fine Gael TD and education spokesperson): “Labour seemed to be getting on top of us… He [Kenny] gave a few bad interviews in the run up to that period.

One of them was with Ivan Yates and Chris O’Donoghue [on Newstalk] about water actually. It was bad. There was another where he was on the Late Late and he gave a bad answer on Sinn Féin or something. So, this was going on for a while.

Andrew Doyle (Fine Gael TD for Wicklow): “The government of the day was falling asunder and becoming more and more unpopular, but we didn’t seem to be making any headway ourselves.  There was a lot of media focus on the leadership.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “Gilmore was forging ahead by leaps and bounds and was building a huge reputation ostensibly around the place. Kenny’s stock was falling correspondingly.

Billy Timmins (Fine Gael TD and foreign affairs spokesperson): “In 2007 we hoped we would make it into government and we didn’t. But there wasn’t any issue with the leader per se. To me it was something that just happened very, very quickly.”

John Paul Phelan (Fine Gael senator): “The decision to abolish the Seanad around the time of the presidential dinner [a Fine Gael fundraiser held the previous October] was the genesis, among my circle of senators, of widespread unease.”

It was not so much that the decision was made but that this was a unilateral thing that was just announced, because that’s not really the way any political party is supposed to make significant policy decisions.

Frank Feighan (Fine Gael TD for Roscommon) “We were probably disappointed that we weren’t doing as well in the polls, but I didn’t really see any heave coming.”

Bernard Durkan (Fine Gael TD for Kildare North): “I remember quite well the run up to that. There had been a series of opinion polls – none of which were positive because there was a trend beginning to establish.”

Frank Flannery (Fine Gael’s director of organisation): “I knew there were rumblings about leadership, but that’s an endemic Fine Gael thing. It’s something that’s almost genetically inbuilt ever since Garret FitzGerald retired.”

John Drennan (Sunday Independent political writer): “This was in the air for a long time. I was told by a fella around January or February of that year, sort of an obscure backbencher, who sort of sees all these things, that ‘they were coming for him [Kenny].’”

Brian Hayes:

There was no moment when people started ringing each other, saying: ‘Oh, let’s take out Enda Kenny’. That didn’t happen.

An unintended crisis: “I saw the poll and that was kind of scary.”

On the evening of Thursday 10 June 2010, the results of an Ipsos MRBI poll being published in the following day’s Irish Times were released. They made devastating reading for Kenny and his party.

Fine Gael had slipped four points to 28 per cent with Labour on 32 per cent and now the most popular party in the country. Kenny’s own personal ratings had dropped seven points to 24 per cent, his lowest since becoming leader.

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

That night, Fine Gael’s finance spokesperson and deputy leader, Richard Bruton, went on RTÉ One’s Prime Time to discuss two banking policy reports that had been released the previous day. But host Miriam O’Callaghan also asked about that poll…


Do you, Richard Bruton, have confidence in your leader?


It’s not about me.


It’s a straight yes or no.


I am just as much in the dock in terms of Fine Gael’s failings. We are all in the dock. We have to look at our performances.

For Fine Gael members all over the county, alarm bells were ringing…

Andrew Doyle: “Richard being Richard, when he was put on the spot about the absolute support, he hesitated, and, I suppose, it snowballed from there.”

Lucinda Creighton (Fine Gael TD for Dublin South-East):

There was Richard Bruton failing to express confidence in the leader of the party and I thought: ‘Oh god, this is pretty serious.’

Bernard Durkan: “I’d say he was reflecting what was being said to him and to others at the time out of genuine concern.”

John Paul Phelan: “I didn’t see it live but I got texts about it and watched it back. I wouldn’t say I was surprised when it happened because again that poll was the ultimate trigger for the whole heave. “

Olivia Mitchell (Fine Gael TD and arts spokesperson): “I was in England that weekend, baby-sitting for my first grandchild and I saw the poll result and that was kind of scary.”

Brian Hayes: “[Then] he went on Vincent Browne afterwards and he didn’t answer the question. I took it from that by not answering the question he was going to take a tilt at it.”

Having travelled across Dublin to go on TV3, Bruton encountered similar questions about Kenny’s leadership from Vincent Browne.

Failing to express outright confidence in the Fine Gael leader, Browne asked Bruton if he had leadership ambitions to which the TD replied: “In the swag bag of every corporal is a lieutenant’s baton.’

John Drennan: “That’s when I knew they were in trouble because Bruton laughed like a nervous ninny and he danced around the question. He didn’t have the hunger. He didn’t want to do this.”

Billy Timmins: “I remember I was watching that and I thought that this looks like trouble. I am sure that Enda felt that this was part of an orchestrated campaign. It wasn’t.”  

Brian Hayes: “It wasn’t just that poll. The poll became a kind of reaction but there had been a number of bad polls.”

Video / YouTube

Lucinda Creighton: “I talked to my friend Leo [Varadkar] and we both sort of said: ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’”

Bernard Durkan: “I thought ‘mistake, mistake, mistake’ and I said that the moment I heard about it.”

Frank Flannery: “It looked like a problem alright. That would have been my first inkling that there was a real issue here. I didn’t believe it would or could happen, because I couldn’t see the political logic in doing it. 

All over the country, Fine Gael TDs and Senators were frantically texting and calling each other in an effort to figure out just what was going on.

This was no orchestrated plan, but Bruton’s inability to express confidence in his party leader on national television, twice, had prompted a flurry of speculation that a heave was afoot. 

In London, Phil Hogan, Kenny’s loyal lieutenant and enforcer, was attending a Fine Gael golf fundraiser at the magnificent 300-acre Moor Park. Several of the party’s parliamentarians were there along with key backroom staff.

Hogan has thought for some time that a heave could be coming and swiftly swung into action, making calls to members of the parliamentary party in an effort to shore up support.

Frank Flannery: “London isn’t the moon, there were emails, this isn’t 1950. So the fact you are in London doesn’t mean you’re disconnected at all. “

Frank Feighan: “I remember Enda Kenny was due to be flying from Knock [to the golf classic in London] with me. It was in the paper [that a heave was afoot] and it still didn’t drop and I dismissed it.  But Enda didn’t go to London, so it was serious.”

Frank Flannery:

How to manage a coup is something that Fine Gael could write a textbook about.

John Drennan: “Hogan and [Fine Gael chief whip Paul] Kehoe were very much in control from the start.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “Phil Hogan was very much part of the protection system.”

Frank Feighan: “Hogan was instrumental in Enda Kenny remaining leader. I think if Phil Hogan wasn’t there the result would probably have been different.”

Hogan speaks to media Phil Hogan speaks to the media during the heave RTÉ RTÉ

Frank Flannery: “Planning went into putting together a campaign to keep him [Kenny] in and to thoroughly and completely canvass the parliamentary party and to try and find out who was with you and against you.”

Andrew Doyle: “I mean, there was a plan obviously put in place. It showed a lot of steel and resolve.”

A weekend of uncertainty: “It’s not much of a fucking ambush.” 

Kenny and Bruton attended different social events on the Friday 11 June. Kenny was in Cork as party grandee Peter Barry was being given the Freedom of the City. Meanwhile, Bruton was attending the wedding of Fine Gael’s legal advisor Jennifer Carroll.

Despite a flurry of speculation in political circles, Bruton was not in the midst of organising any challenge to the leader. By contrast, Kenny’s troops were beginning to rally around him, shoring up support. 

Lucinda Creighton: “Nobody had heard from Richard Bruton and this went on for another 24 hours. Still, nobody had heard from Richard Bruton.”

Brian Hayes: “No one [from the parliamentary party] was on the phone over the weekend to see what was happening. They were all waiting for Tuesday’s frontbench meeting where it was presumed Kenny would fall on his sword and that would be that.”

Billy Timmins: “Certainly the view of the people on the frontbench was that if the frontbench supported Richard that Enda would give in. But anybody that had any knowledge of politics or what was happening knew that wouldn’t be the case.”

Brian Hayes: “Then the weekend came and everybody started to talk to the press which gave Enda, of course, a great opportunity to organise and mobilise and he outplayed everyone because of his tactics.” 

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Brian Hayes talking to the media in the middle of the heave Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Kenny spoke to Bruton on the phone on a number of occasions on Saturday 12 June, asking him to issue a statement of confidence in his leader for the Sunday newspapers. But there was no pledge of loyalty. 

The battles lines were now drawn. Bruton began to reach out to members of the frontbench who he considered loyal to him. On the Kenny side the party machine rallied around its leader with key advisors like Ciarán Conlon and Mark Kennelly drafted in to work on the message to the public as Hogan and Kehoe focused on the parliamentary party. 

John Drennan: “I was on a GAA pitch with my then five-year-old and I got a phone call from one of the conspirators saying that they were going to ambush Enda next week.

I passed it onto my news desk, but even as I said ‘thanks for that’, I thought it’s not much of a fucking ambush if you’re telling political writers in the Sunday Independent that you’re going to ambush the dear leader in the next week.

Brian Hayes: “I wasn’t speaking to any journalist over the weekend. I spoke to people off the record but I didn’t speak publicly on the issue. People wanted me to go on the record and I said: ‘No, it’s a matter for Richard to decide what he’s going to do.’”

If he wanted to go for the leadership now was his best chance and I’d back him. They were putting me, clearly, in his category.

Frank Feighan: “We were in this pub in London with loads of Roscommon exiles and Enda Kenny rang me. He said: ‘Frank, there’s a heave on.’

I was kind of merry at that point and I said: ‘Don’t pay any attention to that.’ He insisted it was serious so I said: ‘Look, let me be the first man to say you’ll have my number one.’

John Paul-Phelan: “I was in the fortunate position where there wasn’t a lot of people ringing me because they probably would have known my position.”

Bernard Durkan: “I have always been supportive of the party leader, whoever the leader is. Until such time as it appears to me the party leader is in an untenable position… I was anxious that we’d all be as united as possible.”

Brian Hayes:

Enda was given from the night of the Thursday to the Tuesday. He had a clear run to contact people.

Billy Timmins: “Enda Kenny left a message on my phone, saying ‘Hi Billy. Enda here, can you contact me?’ I did try and ring him back but I didn’t get him. Maybe he felt I was a lost cause.”

Lucinda Creighton: “It was very late in the day, the manoeuvering had begun long before that on the other side.

There was just no plan. People kind of ended up in a situation without any sort of advance warning from Richard and it was poorly done on his part.

Brian Hayes: “We had no candidate, we had no strategy, we had no campaign. All we had was people talking to the media.

It was pathetic when you look back on it. It was absolutely pathetic.

Olivia Mitchell: “Richard rang me over that weekend. He said there was another poll out and we’re down again. He thought there was a strong possibility that Fianna Fáil would be re-elected if there wasn’t a change of leader.”

Deaglán de Breádún:

The coup had a half-assed air about it, that people were like: ‘Ah jaysus, we’ll get rid of the leader, we’re going badly in the polls.’

Kenny then travelled back from his constituency on Sunday 13 June to meet with Bruton at Fine Gael’s Mount Street headquarters in Dublin city centre.  

Though the meeting was described as cordial there was no progress. The papers that morning had gone big on the issue with many speculating that Kenny would be forced to resign at Tuesday’s frontbench meeting.

Sunday papers 13 June 2010 RTÉ RTÉ

While there were statements of support from Hogan, Kehoe, James Reilly, Alan Shatter, Jimmy Deenihan, Michael Ring, Charlie Flanagan and Frances Fitzgerald, the other members of the Fine Gael frontbench had remained ominously silent or were briefing the media about their intentions in the coming week. 

A decisive move: “What the fuck else do you think he would have done?”

As a veteran TD and former Fine Gael whip, Kenny had been through heaves before. He fundamentally believed in the primacy of the parliamentary party and its democratic processes.

As long as he had a mandate from the majority of his colleagues in the Dáil and Seanad he should not have to entertain the possibility of resigning in the face of unhappiness from some of his front bench, he believed. 

He knew what to do. Having failed to make any progress during talks with Bruton that Sunday, Kenny asked to see him again on the morning of Monday 14 June…  

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Brian Hayes: “I’ll never forget it. I was down in UCG [NUIG] on the Monday in my capacity as education spokesperson. I was driving back up in the car and the phone rang and it was Richard Bruton:

‘Hello Brian, Richard here. I’ve just gone to see Enda, he’s sacked me’.  My reply was: ‘What the fuck else do you think he would have done?’ Then, clearly, it was on.

Andrew Doyle: “It was a surprise in one way, but then maybe it was something we should have expected.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “He showed a side to his character that we didn’t know existed. We all thought he was kind of soft, bland, middle of the road… He gave the impression of being very easy-going, but he showed a toughness that actually benefited him at the time.”

John Paul-Phelan: “It was the Monday morning that I dipped my toe in the water on Morning Ireland. They rang me on the Sunday evening to find out if I would make my views public.

That kind of put me out of any attempts of being influenced by anyone because my colours were nailed on Monday morning.

Frank Feighan: “Calls were coming from the local radio station and they couldn’t track down any senator or TD from the wider Shannonside area. So I went on the radio and said Enda Kenny would have my full support. I nailed my colours to the mast.” 

Billy Timmins: “I remember talking to a few colleagues on the phone that night [Monday] and saying: ‘What’s happening?’ The frontbench meeting was coming up the next morning and we were genuinely unsure what was going to happen.”

Fine Gael Leadership Crisis Billy Timmins Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Frank Feighan:  “That night we were at the golf classic in London and Richard Bruton rang and I missed the call. I rang him back to say he wouldn’t be getting my number one but he’d have my full support if he won and he was very good about it.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “I remember Kenny did a doorstep at the porch [in Leinster House] that evening and I’ll always remember that he was clearly very hurt by it.

You could almost see his eyes were kind of slightly teary and he was clearly very upset about it. I think he felt betrayed.

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

As he embarked on a media offensive, Kenny condemned “unnamed people” who he said had done “huge damage to Fine Gael through their anonymous comments to the media”.

He later went on the Nine O’Clock News on RTÉ, where he described the timing of the attempted heave as “absolutely appalling”. Kenny told Eileen Dunne: 

In the time of Charlie Haughey, PJ Mara could not have dreamed up a response such as this.

Kenny Six One RTÉ RTÉ

The same night Bruton went on RTÉ’s Frontline programme to be interviewed about his intentions.  The Fine Gael rebels who had fallen in behind him were keen to organise and strategise ahead of the crucial frontbench meeting on Tuesday morning.  

Before they headed to Leinster House to begin the Dáil week, they agreed to meet at the Green Isle Hotel on the Naas Road at 8am the next morning, Tuesday 14 June… 

Billy Timmins: “There was a number for people there. I remember Fergus O’Dowd was there, Olivia Mitchell was there, myself, Richard was there, Denis Naughten was there, Brian Hayes was there, Michael Creed was there. Olwyn Enright came in over the phone.”

Brian Hayes: “Leo [Varadkar] had done his own sort of polling in his constituency the night before. He said he was absolutely certain that Kenny should go but was not certain – and he pointed at Richard – ‘that you’re the solution’. I thought it was brilliant.”

Richard kind of blushed and said: ‘Sure that’s it, but it’s me or nothing.’

Billy Timmins: “My memory of that meeting was that a view was expressed that people didn’t want to see a bloodbath or an acrimonious contest.”

Brian Hayes: “We’d no strategy. It was a total kind of Keystone cops event. We had no strategy at all. We thought that he’d fall on his sword, but clearly he’d organised himself very well over the weekend.

Video / YouTube

Olivia Mitchell: “We spoke about the need to talk to all our colleagues in the parliamentary party. [But] I think in a way we were probably naive to think that there would be a domino effect.”

Brian Hayes: “Then we all came out of the Green Isle and Valerie Cox from RTÉ was there. There was a journalist there from the Herald as well and Richard was getting back into his Toyota.“

Lucinda Creighton: “I think Valerie had recognised Billy Timmins’s car and the word was out.”

With Cox reporting live on RTÉ Radio about the now not-so-secret Green Isle meeting, the rebels had been rumbled. They swiftly departed the hotel car park while attempting to avoid the intrepid RTÉ radio reporter.

John Drennan: “That was the wheels coming off because it was found out about, which made them all very nervous.”

John Paul Phelan: “I was driving to Dublin so I was listening to it as it was happening and there was this young lad from home, a student of politics from UCD, who was in the car with me because he wanted some work experience. He was only with me for a couple of weeks so he picked a fantastic time.”

Brian Hayes: “I mean how did that get out? It was extraordinary.”

John Paul-Phelan: “There was always the suspicion about this mole character and who the mole was and how did the media find out about the meeting in the Green Isle. “

John Drennan: “I think it was Simon Coveney who sort of half leaked it accidentally. There was a view that Simon was on both sides of the fence.”

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Simon Coveney Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Deaglán de Breádún: “I heard that rumour but I was never able to verify it. If there was double agent, which there clearly appears to have been, it shows how formidable Hogan and Kenny were and how incompetent the others were.” (Simon Coveney did not respond to a request for comment for this article)

John Paul Phelan: “I would suspect, to be perfectly honest, the Green Isle was much too obvious a location. You’re talking about a lot of people coming from all over the country on a Tuesday morning. “

Brian Hayes: “I remember we went into Leinster House and one journalist said to me: ‘Were you in the Green Isle Hotel?’ and I said: ‘Dublin West is a fantastic place to have your breakfast!’”

John Paul Phelan: “If you’re meeting in a hotel on the outskirts of Dublin, the Green Isle is a kind of an obvious place really, isn’t it?”

John Drennan:

But that certainly shattered the morale of the rebels because they started to wonder if there was a spy in the camp or could they trust everyone in the room and all the rest of it.

Another decisive move: “This frontbench is stood down.”

After the Green Isle debacle, Fine Gael’s frontbench team gathered for its usual Tuesday morning meeting on the fourth floor of Leinster House.

Kenny arrived and castigated the rebels, informing them he would be tabling a motion of confidence in himself at a special meeting of the parliamentary party on Thursday. He had some other news as well…

Brian Hayes: “So Enda came into the frontbench meeting and he spoke about his disappointment at what had happened. Then he stood down the frontbench. It was another brilliant move because we didn’t know what to do.”

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Brian Hayes with Irish Daily Mail journalist Senan Molony Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Olivia Mitchell: “We had our meeting and it was all over in about three minutes. He was furious, he accused us of a lack of loyalty. I remember the words, he said: ‘This frontbench is stood down.’

Frank Flannery: “I think there was some hope that Enda might actually walk away from it, in the sense that ‘Hey, you’ve lost all this support, so why don’t you just resign now.

But that wasn’t Enda at all. Enda wouldn’t be taken out except for a vote by the parliamentary party.

Bernard Durkan: “Decisive action is the only thing that can be done in [that] situation, it’s the only modus operandi that can be applied in the situation because everybody sizes everybody else up to see who’s going to blink first.”

Frank Flannery: “That he would actually walk away because eight or nine members of his cabinet say they would prefer someone else was just a bizarre conception.”

Billy Timmins: “As Enda was going out of the frontbench meeting myself and himself had words and I went down to his office… and I must say I had a very pleasant chat with him. I thought ‘Jesus, can’t something be done to stop this?’

[As I was leaving] I remember one thing Enda did say and that was: ‘I don’t need to know who’s doing what, it’s all in the paper anyway.’ I hadn’t seen the papers myself, but obviously someone was giving information to the papers where it was: ‘Nine or 10 frontbench members to vote against Enda Kenny.’

Brian Hayes: “After the frontbench we all came together in the room beside it and said: ‘What are we going to do?’”

Olivia Mitchell: “I probably was shocked more than surprised because what else could you do, but it was kind of painful.”

Billy Timmins: “[Then] I rang someone who was in the group and they’d gathered in someone’s office.

I went down there and at this stage it was very much a decision that we were all going on the plinth. I remember saying: ‘Hang on a second, we can’t do this, we’ve got to tell the leader if you’re going to vote for him or not.’

Frontbench walkout RTÉ RTÉ

The frontbench rebels eventually agreed to head out onto the Leinster House plinth to address the media about their intentions.

They were led by Denis Naughten, the Roscommon TD, who said they were “putting our careers on the line” for both the best interests of the country and the party.

naughten RTÉ RTÉ

John Drennan: “I remember look at them coming out on the plinth and thinking it was not enough.”

Billy Timmins: “To me, I never felt comfortable doing it and I suppose it was wrong of us to go out onto the plinth like that.

It looked like all the party was ganging up on the leader, which portrayed a terrible image in one sense.

Lucinda Creighton: “It wasn’t planned… There was nobody in charge and the vast majority on the frontbench were on the side of Richard and yet they couldn’t mobilise the party.”

Olivia Mitchell: “One thing that really surprised us was the press office ran the campaign for [Kenny]. In previous heaves the press office had stood down and stood apart from the process. So, I think we were kind of surprised by that.”

The numbers game: “Kill or be killed.”

With the frontbench rebels making their intentions clear, a motion of no confidence was tabled and a meeting of the parliamentary party was set for Thursday.

The race for votes from TDs, Senators and MEPs began. Some had already declared their intentions, but there was a sizeable number who were undecided.  

While it was no secret that ordinary parliamentary party members had grievances with Kenny – and were prepared to back Bruton – the frontbench rebels did not have the same level of organisation as the Kenny camp.

Fine Gael Leadership Contests The Fine Gael rebels on the plinth shortly after they'd been stood down by Enda Kenny. Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Frank Flannery: “The fact that you had eight or ten of the frontbench means absolutely nothing when you have 60 or 70 votes out there. Every vote is a highly independent entity. The frontbench represents 10 per cent of the party.”

Brian Hayes: “I would have been in regular contact with Phil Hogan through the whole thing when it happened.  He was just being straight up and honest about it. We were all talking to the same people who were lying to both of us.”

We kind of knew there was about ten people who were committing on both sides – TDs and senators.

Billy Timmins: “Richard was completely disorganised. When Richard would have been sitting down with parliamentary party people, he would have been telling them what he could do for the party, the country.

But I am sure when Enda was sitting across from them, with that good old west of Ireland, rural instinct, [and] he was telling a lot of individuals what he could do for them.

Olivia Mitchell: “We spoke to all of the TDs, between us but I am not sure we spoke to senators and we didn’t speak to MEPs. I don’t remember anyone saying:  ‘We needed to speak to MEPs.’ They might have been forgotten.”

Brian Hayes: “I went on the six o’clock news that night to talk about [Richard’s] economic experience given the crash and the kind of turmoil the country had been through.

Hayes Six One RTÉ RTÉ

We had to get people out, we had no press office, so we had to get people go on the news and go on different programmes.

That night, Leo Varadkar, the highly-rated Dublin West TD who had been the party’s enterprise spokesperson up until that Monday, went on Prime Time to make the case for Bruton.

Rather bizarrely, he drew inspiration from that famous Hillary Clinton 3am 2008 presidential campaign ad

Taoiseach Enda / YouTube

Brian Hayes: “That was just Leo speak. He just went on that night, he was trying to think of things to say I suppose… That was just Leo embellishing it a bit… “ 

Frank Flannery: “The key was how the parliamentary party broke down. I think the [rebels] were very confident [but] they had it wrong.”

John Paul Phelan: “The meetings were on the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.

There was no time for talking about directions of parties, these were frenetic meetings where there were literally lists of names, and who’s going to talk to who. That was the way it was done. I’d several people to talk to…. mostly fellow senators.

Olivia Mitchell: “We had a list of people we thought were on our side, maybe we should have spoken to everybody and maybe we didn’t. To be honest we were bad at it.”

Brian Hayes: “Once he decided to go for this, [Richard] only really had Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.

He got to speak to everyone he possibly could, but people make all kinds of promises that ‘oh we know so and so is coming’. That’s all bullshit in politics.

Andrew Doyle: “[I said] it needed to be thrashed out and whatever the result I would live with it and I wasn’t looking for anything for it, I wasn’t expecting anything out of it.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “I actually saw Hogan in the coffee shop one day, talking to one of the dissidents and clearly he was working on the guy.”

Olivia Mitchell: “I was never approached. I know some people were. There were waverers and people who weren’t declaring.  But my position was known, I was known as being close to Richard. I think my position was pretty clear – irredeemable, some might say.”

Fine Gael Leadership Crisis Olivia Mitchell Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Billy Timmins: “I remember coming out that evening [Tuesday] to find out what’s happening and Richard didn’t have his vanguard or people organising. Then, I suppose in many respects, I ended up in the role myself of trying to whip votes.”

John Paul Phelan: “Some of the conversations weren’t as clear cut. People were wondering whether it was the right thing to do or not.”

Bernard Durkan: “I was approached, I think, by three people at that time. I better not say too much about that.

I advised anybody who did [approach me] strongly of the divisiveness of the plan, the dangers and that we could end up in a very, very embarrassing situation while staring an election in the face.

John Drennan: “Simon Coveney was all over the shop. He put himself forward as the compromise candidate in the middle of it all and I mean there was strong suspicion on all sides that he was the mole.”

Brian Hayes: “I heard it suggested that he might bring himself forward as a compromise candidate. I just thought it wasn’t credible, you know. There was one candidate on the field, Richard Bruton.”

Billy Timmins: “I would have been whipping votes for him [Bruton] with a few people, but I wasn’t something that I had planned with Richard, it just happened.

It happened because it was either a case of kill or be killed, so you were seeing what you could do to come out on the right side of it.

The Noonan factor: “I know how I’m voting, I’m just not telling anybody.”

That same day, Tuesday, Phil Hogan is believed to have met with Michael Noonan, Kenny’s predecessor as leader. The veteran Limerick TD had remained almost completely silent on the backbenches in the years following his resignation after Fine Gael’s catastrophic 2002 election result.

Noonan had spent several months holding court with future rebels in the bar of Buswell’s Hotel on Wednesday evenings. He had listened to their gripes about the direction of the party and appeared to give the impression that he was on their side.

No one is really sure if Hogan offered Noonan the job of finance spokesperson in return for backing Kenny. Indeed, some believe it wasn’t Hogan but Kenny who convinced Noonan to silently back him.

“I know how I’m voting, I’m just not telling anybody,” Noonan told reporters who asked him about what he planned to do in the days before the parliamentary party meeting. He insisted that, as a former party leader, it would not be appropriate for him to comment.

Fine Gael Presidential Dinners Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny in 2010 Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Frank Feighan: “I don’t know if a deal was done, but Michael Noonan had been through so many leadership heaves and he is a wise counsel at all times. He understood what leadership heaves were all about.”

Frank Flannery: “I took the view that he had been through this himself and he wasn’t going to get involved in it.”

John Paul Phelan: “I do remember having a conversation with Michael a few months before it happened.

I kind of said that in light of the fact there’s not very many in Fine Gael with ministerial experience, if we were to get back into government surely he’d be a minister of some sort. He expressed some doubt as to whether that would ever come to pass.

John Drennan: “I think Phil described him as being like a little round Buddha. Phil said what would happen if he didn’t come out and Noonan would give him the nod. But they knew they had him so long as he didn’t come out on the side of the rebels. He was on Kenny’s side.”

Brian Hayes: “I think the fact he stood back from it was clearly a help to Enda Kenny because he would have been a heavyweight to back Richard Bruton had he done so.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “That would have been done very quietly but my memory of it is that it was very noticeable that he didn’t join the dissidents. I think they were disappointed.” 

Bernard Durkan: ”He might have been a sympathetic ear to their cause [the rebels] but now I had a discussion with him around that time too and he hadn’t the time for getting involved in conspiracies and he hadn’t the interest in it, or the heart in it.”

Aside from Noonan it became clear that on Kenny’s side deals were being done in a bid to shore up support. Some were promised ministries in any future Fine Gael government, while others were told they would not have a running mate in their constituency in the forthcoming election. 

Brian Hayes: “I didn’t make any deals. We weren’t in any position to make any deals. That was not done, it wasn’t done with me anyway. I don’t think it was done with Richard either, he’s not the kind of person.”

Video / YouTube

Lucinda Creighton: “Promising people that they won’t have running mates, promising people that they’ll be junior ministers, that’s buying off votes. It’s not my kind of politics.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “Hogan is a kind of a natural, grassroots politician whereas Richard, there’s a touch of the academic about him. I don’t think he would be that type of politician.”

Olivia Mitchell: “We weren’t in a position to make any promises. I don’t think that that was ever on the cards.”

Lucinda Creighton: “[Bruton] could have won it if he’d promised people that they’d have constituencies to themselves and so on. But I guess he’s ethical.” 

Brian Hayes: “The leader has huge power because he can promise things.

He can promise who’s going to be in your constituency, who’s not going to be in your constituency. So he had all of the cards and he played them very well.

The final hours: “Would you come over to the dark side?”

On Wednesday 16 June  - the day before the vote – the rebels got a boost. There were two declarations of support for Bruton from justice spokesperson Charlie Flanagan – who had earlier backed Kenny – and Kieran O’Donnell, who had been appointed finance spokesperson in the wake of Bruton’s sacking just two days earlier.

The outcome was, in some people’s view “on a knife-edge”, but others weren’t so sure…

Billy Timmins: “I remember walking across the plinth the evening before and there was a member of the sacked frontbench who is now minister and they asked me ‘What do you think it is?’

I said: ‘I think it’s about maybe 37-33’ and he said ‘To us?’. I said ‘No, to Enda’. They were really taken aback because they would have been one of the people who thought it was the other way.

Brian Hayes: “I became upset actually on the Wednesday night when I realised what we had got into, quite frankly, because the implications for so many people whatever way, at the end of this, it was going to be quite a divided party.”

John Paul Phelan: “I had a conversation at 3 or 4 in the morning in a hotel room on the Thursday… We were trying to convince them what to do but the person in question remained in the kind of half dozen names that nobody really knows for sure what they did when the vote came.”

Brian Hayes: “You knew exactly who was with you, who was against you and you knew who was in the middle ground.

Everybody in the middle ground couldn’t be trusted and they’re substantial in politics – the each-way betters.

The same evening, at around 6pm, Hogan took the plinth with over a dozen other Kenny supporters in a show of strength aimed at showing that not only would the leader win the confidence motion, but do so convincingly.

Hogan plinth 16 June

We have the numbers and we hope that people now will make sure that we have a decisive outcome

The imposing Kilkenny TD would later be spotted chatting convivially with Michael Noonan in the main lobby of Leinster House. For some of the rebels this was a clear indication of where the Limerick TD’s loyalties lay.

Despite this, the defections of O’Donnell and Flanagan appeared to give the Bruton camp the momentum going into Thursday morning. But even on the day of the vote – 17 June 2010 – efforts were still being made to turn loyal Kenny supporters.

One coup leader was said to have asked journalists how they felt it was going, an indication to the political correspondents that Bruton’s hopes were dwindling. Some of the rebels knew it too…  

Frank Feighan: “The day of the vote I was brought for coffee in the Busy Bean Café [on Molesworth Street] by two of my best friends in the parliamentary party and their joke was: ‘Would you come over to the dark side?’ and I said ‘Look lads, no.’”

John Paul Phelan: “I thought it was on a knife-edge. There were some people who were very confident of victory. I was never one of those. I really thought it was too close to call to be honest. I just didn’t know.”

Brian Hayes: “I went on Pat Kenny that morning with Phil Hogan actually and while I didn’t know the outcome of the meeting, he seemed more confident. But that’s not to say that when it came to the secrecy of the ballot box people do what they do. There’s no certainty in this thing at all.”

Frank Feighan: “I genuinely didn’t think Enda Kenny had enough, especially with a secret ballot. The fact that he’d committed to abolishing the Seanad meant I felt that the senators might swing it.”

Billy Timmins: “I remember the morning of the vote, I came along to Leinster House 2000 [the extension of the main Oireachtas building] and I just happened to come along the same corridor as Enda Kenny.

“We walked beside each other for ten or fifteen yards without uttering a word and I must say all that was going through my head was to say: ‘Lookit Enda, this is nothing personal’.”

The parliamentary party meeting: “He has this electrifying style sometimes.”

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Enda Kenny walking towards LH2000 Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Deep in the bowels of Leinster House 2000, a relatively modern part of the Oireachtas complex, Fine Gael TDs, Senators and MEPs assembled in the Fine Gael parliamentary party room for 11.30am. 

The room is like a bunker, with no natural light and space at a premium. This was particularly true on a day when the entire parliamentary party was present.

Andrew Doyle: “It was warm. It was in that little room that would be big enough for a normal parliamentary meeting where you’ve about 70 per cent turnout. But In this case I think at this we had 99 per cent turnout. There was no secretariat, nobody else, no advisers, nobody.”

It would be a long and eventful meeting that was chaired by Padraic McCormack, the party chairman. Paschal Donohoe, a Dublin senator and party secretary, took minutes.

Others also took notes of the meeting, with a detailed account of who said what subsequently published a few days later in the Irish Times by Deaglán de Breádún. He told us it was the best and most accurate report of a parliamentary party meeting he had ever written. 

The meeting’s structure benefitted Kenny. Having tabled the motion of confidence in himself he would be allowed to open the meeting with his pre-prepared remarks and close it before the vote…

Olivia Mitchell: “The meeting was structured in a way that he spoke first for 20 minutes and Richard got five minutes, because he was just another speaker.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “He was either very smart himself or very well-advised. Part of being smart is taking good advice.”

Billy Timmins: “Enda gave a very good, emotional speech that certainly appealed to the heart of people.”

enda speak Kenny speaks to the media shortly after the parliamentary party meeting RTÉ RTÉ

Deaglán de Breádún: “He has this electrifying style sometimes where he tried to inject a bit of excitement into his speaking. Now, whether it made any difference or not, I don’t know.”

Frank Feighan:

It was the most powerful meeting that I’ve ever been at. The speeches were emotive and the speeches were very well thought out and constructive on both sides.

Billy Timmins: “The meeting went on, it was a long meeting, there was a lot of talk, there were a lot of emotional speeches.”

John Paul Phelan: “My doubts were very early when some of the people, who I knew had been so critical behind the leader’s back, were suddenly expressing undying love in a most shocking fashion. That’s when I realised that there was trouble ahead.”

Olivia Mitchell: “It was grim. I didn’t think going in that he [Kenny] would win the motion, but I quickly realised that they were outgunning us on all fronts and they were just so well organised.”

Bernard Durkan: “I said: ‘When I looked in the mirror this morning I said to the guy there: here we are again’.

I went on then to excoriate some of my colleagues for doing what they did. I did not make myself very popular with them.

Brian Hayes: “There were some intemperate remarks made by people. Personalised attacks.”

John Drennan: “There were very bitter exchanges with Olwyn Enright and I think there were very sharp exchanges with Olivia Mitchell as well. Both of them physically, viscerally could not stand Kenny, whatever it is about him.”

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Olwyn Enright and Olivia Mitchell Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Olivia Mitchell: “I tried to convey that this was in no way a criticism of Enda himself and that I realised he’d put his heart and soul and every minute of the day into this, but that it wasn’t working.”

Bernard Durkan: ”The gloves were off at that stage, there was no real sense in being nice to anybody. It was all in the public arena at that stage, blood was being spilled on all sides.”

Andrew Doyle: “Not everybody spoke, but I’d say well over 70 per cent of the people spoke, probably 45-50 people spoke.”

John Paul-Phelan: “There was a whole lot of speeches and it kind of broke 50-50 but there was a cluster of people who never spoke, who didn’t express a view, and it was always going to come down to that group.”

Olivia Mitchell:

You know, Enda was hurting too and he really did feel that we were disloyal and we were. He felt it and you could see that he felt it. I mean he’s human too.

The meeting broke at 2.30pm for a Dáil vote before resuming until around 4.45pm. In his closing remarks, Kenny was said to have castigated the ringleaders of the rebellion one-by-one. He gave a passionate conclusion, declaring that if he were to win the vote he would go on to become Taoiseach.  

For the vote itself, a corner of the parliamentary party room was partitioned and a makeshift polling booth was erected. Members of the parliamentary party were called one-by-one, in alphabetical order, to complete the voting papers before they were placed in a box.

McCormack and Donohoe acted as tellers, the votes were counted quickly before being rechecked. Of those we spoke to Hayes, Doyle, Phelan, Timmins, Creighton and Mitchell voted against Kenny. Feighan and Durkan were among those who backed the leader.

The result was declared and Kenny was the winner. No one knows the margin of victory as the result was kept secret and the ballot papers shredded. Some speculated it was 38 to 32, while the Kenny side spun that the margin was as wide as 10 or 14 votes… 

Olivia Mitchell: “Nobody has ever told us what the vote was but I suspect it was very tight. I would say that the TDs probably defeated Enda, but the senators, I suspect not. The MEPs definitely voted with Enda.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “The actual vote was quite close and it was somewhere between three and seven [votes].”

Andrew Doyle: “You’re never going to pinpoint it down. Some say it was close to two and three votes, while others say it was somewhere between six and ten.”

Fine Gael Leadership Contests Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

John Paul-Phelan: “I do think it was close, maybe closer than 38 to 32, that’s me speculating, because of the reactions of a number of people afterwards.”

Lucinda Creighton: “It was close. I think it was close to the very end. I think there was only a couple of votes in it, if even.”

Billy Timmins: “I always remember one particular individual stating that Enda won by something like 13 votes. Now, unless there was a spoiled vote he couldn’t win by an odd number because it was 70 in the party it had to be an even number. So there was a lot of spinning. I stayed in the background and kept my head down.”

Brian Hayes: “When the vote came out, I stood right behind him [Richard Bruton].

I think I was the only one to stand behind him because I did feel partly responsible even, though he didn’t consult me in any of the lead up to this.

John Paul-Phelan: “There were tears, yes, on the losing side, where they usually reside. None of them were mine, I wouldn’t be that kind of person.

There is a very prominent politician on the losing side of the argument who was very upset afterwards but I wouldn’t name them.

Padraig McCormack announced the result to the media who had gathered on the plinth. Then a victorious Kenny emerged a short time later, flanked by his divided parliamentary party.

Deaglan de Breadún: “They all came out on the plinth and they were sort of elbowing one another aside to be in the donut…

Kenny was a winner, everybody wanted to be closely associated with him at that stage.

Kenny told the media he was “thrilled and indeed very relieved” that the motion had passed. Later there was an awkward handshake with Richard Bruton: 

Kenny Bruton That awkward handshake RTÉ RTÉ

The attempted coup had failed and failed miserably. Kenny had emerged victorious and enhanced by what had been a bruising experience for many in the Fine Gael party.

On 29 June 2014, Richard Bruton wrote a blog post reflecting on the events of earlier that month and what he said had been a time for “honest debate within Fine Gael”. 

They say that winners write history. And perhaps this is true of the recent events in Fine Gael too. Many have written about ineptitude, ill-timing, elitism and raw ambition to describe what happened in Fine Gael in recent weeks. The truth is very different. Many people of real conviction on both sides argued passionately about the future of our Party. It is that passion which must now be harnessed into new purposefulness and direction.

The following month, Kenny appointed a new frontbench with Noonan made finance spokesperson and Bruton given the enterprise portfolio. James Reilly became the party’s deputy leader. Some rebels were retained on the frontbench but moved to other portfolios, including Leo Varadkar, Charlie Flanagan, and Simon Coveney.

While Brian Hayes was removed from his education portfolio he was later made deputy finance spokesperson. Michael Creed, Olwyn Enright, Olivia Mitchell, Denis Naughten and Billy Timmins were all dropped from the frontbench and never returned.

Frank Flannery: “Guys like Leo and Simon were kept on. These were very key events and allowed the party to move on as if it hadn’t happened.”

Deaglán de Breádún: “I thought Kenny was very smart to give jobs to some of the dissidents. It showed generosity and imagination and a lack of petty-mindedness.”

Frank Feighan: “I think in some absurd way it was good for the party… It was a crazy week but Enda Kenny was decisive in the way that he dealt with the situation and I think he has shown that even today.”

Brian Hayes: “Looking back it was a mad, mad few days. But the thing you learn is in politics who is of their word and who is not of their word. It’s not an easy thing for a new TD to go through this public exposure, but you learn a lot yourself going through that. Certainly the attention it brought to the party didn’t do us any favours at all.

Olivia Mitchell:

It was a dreadful, dreadful time, it was a dreadful experience. It was kind of heartbreaking in many ways.

Lucinda Creighton: “[Had Bruton won] Fine Gael would have had an overall majority because economic competence was the only issue in the last general election.”

John Paul Phelan: “I did admire him afterwards. The public, as well as the party, saw a side to him that they didn’t think that he had up to that point.”

Fine Gael's New Front Bench Enda Kenny with his new frontbench /Photocall Ireland /Photocall Ireland

Andrew Doyle: “I think that the outcome of the exercise put a lot of steel in and turned people that were seen as being somewhat, maybe, weak into being respected for having a bit of an edge to themselves.

It was an eye-opener … Certainly that put us on a better footing for a general election, no doubt about it.

Billy Timmins: “Do I feel I should be minister? Well I couldn’t answer that.

“I am sure if the Taoiseach hears this interview he’ll think: ‘Well he fucked up, he had the chance so how would you make a guy minister that fucked up.”

But look that’s it. In fairness to Enda Kenny he gave me lots of opportunities. I can never say that Enda Kenny mistreated me.

Olivia Mitchell: “Would I have been in cabinet? Probably, but that’s life. I’ve made my peace with it, and I’ve made my peace with Enda.”

Where are they now… 

The politicians… 

Lucinda Creighton is still a TD for Dublin South East, but has since quit Fine Gael over the abortion issue and founded Renua.

Andrew Doyle was Fine Gael’s agriculture spokesperson after the heave. He continues to serve as a TD for Wicklow.

Bernard Durkan is still a TD for Kildare North and serves on the Fine Gael backbenches. 

Frank Feighan is still a TD for Roscommon-South Leitrim.

Brian Hayes became junior finance minister after the 2011 election, before becoming a Fine Gael MEP for Dublin last year. 

Olivia Mitchell is still a TD for Dublin South and serves on the Fine Gael backbenches. 

John Paul-Phelan was elected a TD for Carlow Kilkenny on 2011 and is currently serving on the banking inquiry. 

Billy Timmins remains a TD for Wicklow and is Renua’s deputy leader.

The journalists… 

Deaglán de Breádún has since left the Irish Times. He was political editor of the Irish Sun until recently and is currently writing a book about Sinn Féin.

John Drennan recently left the Sunday Independent and now works as director of communications and political strategy for Renua.  

The strategist…

Frank Flannery left his role with Fine Gael last year amid controversy over his links to Rehab. 

Author’s note: 

Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton declined to take part in this project as did several other Fine Gael TDs who have subsequently become ministers. A spokesperson for Bruton said: ”We have no comment to make on what is now ancient history.” 

Minister Bruton and the Taoiseach work extremely closely in Government, in particular on the jobs agenda where we have delivered 100k additional jobs 2 years ahead of target. That is where our focus is and will remain – not on events half a decade ago.

-Written by Hugh O’Connell

Read: How safe is Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader?

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