CAN it really be true that the great survivor of Irish politics, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, is about to call time on his political career? The writing has been on the wall for him before, but he has somehow always managed to defy those who were writing him off and bounce back.
However, in recent times, he has become too gaffe-prone for his own good and never more so than last week, which was one that truly validated the saying that a week is a long time in politics. His contradictory statements regarding his contacts and meetings with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, and his attempts at explanations about who knew what and when about the HSE-Tusla file wrongly accusing Garda whistle-blower, Sgt Maurice McCabe, of sexual abuse of a child, resulted in the Taoiseach, embarrassingly, having to admit to the Dáil that some of his recollections had misled the House and to apologise for same.
The most charitable thing some of his colleagues were able to say in his defence was that it was not Mr Kenny’s finest hour – something we have heard a number of times before. Some of his gaffes in the past, while cringeworthy, were harmless enough, such as the tall tale he told in Spain about how close the government had come close to putting the Irish Army on guard at ATM machines when our banks were threatened with collapsing after their reckless lending practices during the Celtic Tiger era.
The only reputation that suffered from such ‘porkies’ was that of the Taoiseach himself, albeit only incurring some minor dents. However, the reputational damage at stake during last week’s events was of a much more serious nature, especially when news emerged of the slur put on Sgt Maurice McCabe’s character, which caused huge suffering to himself and his family, because of the false report generated through the HSE and passed on to child protection agency Tusla – which they later apologised for.
It begged many questions about how the matter was handled, about who was made aware of these allegations, and at what level, in An Garda Síochána and if they were used to tarnish Sgt McCabe’s good name in any of the judicial inquiries that took place into how whistle-blowers were dealt with. The government reacted by announcing another Commission of Investigation to try to kick the can down the road further, but this was rejected by Sgt McCabe, whose call for an independent Tribunal of Inquiry – to be held in public – was subsequently agreed to after intense political pressure from all quarters.
Chairman of the Tribunal of Inquiry, Mr Justice Peter Charleton, has already started his work with a view to completing the first major segment of it, relating to Sgt McCabe, within a nine-month time frame. To say that the hearings should generate a lot of public interest is an understatement and the findings could have far-reaching consequences for some people, be it within the ranks of An Garda Síochána or in the political arena; time will tell.
However, the political fall-out has already started with the pressure Taoiseach Enda Kenny put himself under on the matters in question, leading to his ‘mea culpa’ admission in the Dáil last week. The main Fine Gael leadership contenders did not even have to emerge from the tall grass and show their hand, as the Taoiseach conveniently shot himself in the foot with his contradictory answers to some of the questions that arose.
The rather unsubtle threat by Fine Gael party vice-chairman, Pat Deering TD, that if Mr Kenny did not outline his exit strategy within a week, a motion of no confidence in his leadership would be tabled, was rowed back on somewhat, but only after it was made in the first place. This really put it up to the Taoiseach, but he was not prepared to roll over easily, citing all the important and challenging issues that had to be dealt with at this time, the main one being Brexit.
An underlying sense of panic has gripped the ranks of Fine Gael that, if the rug was suddenly pulled from under the fragile minority government it leads, they are not adequately prepared to fight a general election with Mr Kenny in charge and they could suffer even more seat losses than they did this weekend last year. The events of the past week have brought the possibility of an election much closer and, with Fine Gael trailing Fianna Fáil quite badly in the latest opinion polls, the leadership issue is paramount.
Ironically, having the gaffe-prone Enda Kenny as Taoiseach suits Fianna Fáil better as it makes their job in opposition easier and they are less likely to renege on the deal they did with Fine Gael to prop up the current government for three years. However, a new Fine Gael leader would throw a different complexion on things and we could be heading for that infamous ‘election that nobody wants’ sooner than we think.