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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 7 December, 2019

Aaron McKenna: Enda is the darling of Time – but there’s trouble in Fine Gael

A proxy war is under way against the Taoiseach from within his own party, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

OUR TAOISEACH ENDA Kenny has made it onto the cover of Time Magazine in a PR coup that will help our image abroad and, in one of those fuzzy but important ways, assist our recovery. The Taoiseach ought to be pleased as punch, but ongoing events in domestic politics will also be weighing on his mind.

James Reilly and, to a lesser extent, Phil Hogan continue to reign supreme in the news this week. Details are drip-drip-dripping out about the health centres proposed for Reilly’s constituency, and you’d almost think that somebody was feeding the information out to keep the good doctor in the news and under pressure.

The best and brightest in Fine Gael tried to offload Enda Kenny in 2010 after years of lacklustre performance against a government that had, by that point, bankrupted the country. It was a fast move against him that had brewed for a while and been set off by a poor showing in the polls, putting Fine Gael below Labour. The heave failed, but many of its leaders were brought into Kenny’s embrace by the time the party finally fell over the line into power.

Many of the acolytes of would-be leader Richard Bruton are now ministers alongside Brutus himself in Jobs and Innovation: Simon Coveney in Agriculture, Leo Varadkar in Transport and Brian Hayes the junior in Finance, among others.

Buckets of confidence

These men and women stood up after eight years of Kenny’s leadership and professed a lack of confidence in the man and his capability to lead the party, let alone the country. Afterwards, as are the rules, they professed a 180 degree turnaround in their thinking after Kenny emerged victorious from a confidence motion.

One can’t help but wonder if that is an entirely intellectually honest position to hold: No confidence as party leader yesterday, but buckets of it for him as Taoiseach today. Be that as it may, Enda Kenny got Fine Gael in over the line after a long period of rebuilding. He may have gone to Fianna Fáil-levels of gombeen promises he couldn’t keep about A&E departments and other things to try and secure a majority, but when you become Taoiseach you get a free pass from your party colleagues for a time.

It’s now a year and a half later, and that honeymoon is over. There is a slow motion heave against Enda Kenny underway. His opponents have watched him literally falling over things to avoid hard questions as Taoiseach and many fears about him being a lightweight have not been allayed by his time in the office. Time Magazine cover or no – and The Celtic Comeback is a faraway dream for many in this country – the performance of Enda Kenny has not been awe-inspiring.

Slow-motion heave

The Liberators of Fine Gael have learned their lesson: A fast move against Kenny will not work. Nor can the Taoiseach rip his cabinet apart the way he broke up his opposition front bench after the last heave. Instead there is a slow motion heave in process, building a head of steam in the pressure cooker of government.

Two of the main architects of Kenny’s win in the 2010 heave were James Reilly and Phil Hogan. The left and right pillars of his rule are being chipped away at slowly but surely. They have both created the conditions for their downfalls, but it was Leo Varadkar who popularised the expression “stroke politics” in relation to Reilly’s constituency health center controversy.

James Reilly is the deputy leader of Fine Gael, and Leo Varadkar was right in the middle of the 2010 heave. Back during his first term as a TD, when he completed the medical training he had delayed through his election, the ambitious go-getter from the class of 2007 gave an interview to the Evening Herald stating his desire to one day be Taoiseach.

There is no accident when one senior minister drops another one into trouble. Politicians find it simple to come out and maintain a steady line in favour of someone or something, no matter the pressure of evidence. When a halfhearted statement or a strange suggestion emerges from their lips, it might as well be a knife driven straight into the front.

Proxy war

Should Reilly have to go because there is a continuing drip of information against him – all of which does not apparate itself from thin air in a manner conducive to providing new fodder on a daily basis – then the deputy leadership battle will be another proxy war for the soul of Fine Gael, and identifying the next leader.

The plan for Hogan always seemed to be destined to end in a comfortable job as Ireland’s EU commissioner, kept out of the country that he will be so unpopular in. Now Big Phil will be lucky to get to continue to roll out some of this governments most unpopular new taxes in the property, water and septic tank charges if stories continue to emerge that show him even appearing to use ministerial office inappropriately.

For such an experienced constituency operator, there is the possibility that his representations against a family of Travellers might be the norm rather than an unfortunate but isolated error of judgement.

We’re a third of the way into this Government’s term. Any potential new leaders are thinking that a slow moving heave might get rid of Enda Kenny and his gang by the midway point, allowing them to stamp their authority onto new policies and hopefully improve the lot of the country to allow electoral success come the next local and general elections.

Enda and Co are canny operators, and could well hang on. We can then await Kenny running for the office he seems best suited to hold by his management style as soon as Michael D gives it up.

The stories we are being fed these past few weeks are not about Reilly and Hogan, they are about something that started in 2010.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for You can find out more about him at or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

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