LAST week, we wrote about the leadership vacuum in the main British political parties in the aftermath of the UK referendum decision to leave the European Union and, while the Tories have quickly sorted theirs with Theresa May becoming Prime Minister this week, our situation at the top here is precarious with Taoiseach Enda Kenny coming under fire from within the ranks of his own Fine Gael party after a series of embarrassing episodes that made him look somewhat foolish. Our leader has been prone to all sorts of cringe-worthy gaffes since he assumed office and the more of them that happen, the greater his political standing and gravitas are diminished.
At the start of last week, the fragile government that he leads was intent on forming an all-island forum in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Assembly to liaise on matters of mutual concern resulting from the fall-out of the Brexit decision. Sadly for him, nobody seems to have formally put this proposition to First Minister Arlene Foster, so – embarrassingly for our government – it became a non-runner as she maintained that there were already enough cross-border fora in existence through which they could consult.
After adding this embarrassment to his capitulation to the three Independent Alliance ministers in his government who demanded a free vote on Mick Wallace’s private member’s bill seeking to repeal the 8th amendment of the Constitution concerning access to abortion in Ireland – which was deemed unconstitutional by the Attorney General – Mr Kenny’s credibility took yet another hit, as many in his party believed he should have faced down Shane Ross, John Halligan and Finian McGrath on the matter and called their bluff. There is a feeling within Fine Gael that the Taoiseach does not have effective enough control of the minority government and members are worried that he has become a lame duck leader of an unstable administration.
He also surprised nearly everybody in Fine Gael last week by reinstating Dr James Reilly as deputy leader of the party, having stated several weeks ago that he was no longer the party’s second-in-command. Now a senator, Reilly’s restoration as Fine Gael deputy leader has annoyed the parliamentary party’s younger cohort, who felt the position should have gone to somebody new.
Little wonder then that the discontent about Enda Kenny’s leadership that had been rumbling beneath the surface since the party’s disappointing general election performance has come out into the public domain, leading to calls for him to set out his exit strategy sooner rather than later. Ironically, these calls came in the wake of speculation that he might be needed to stay on longer than intended in order to provide the continuity and stability necessary to deal decisively with the fall-out from the Brexit decision as he seems to be well-got with both UK and EU leaders, albeit mainly for his subservience to the latter.
Fine Gael’s West Cork TD Jim Daly – a strong Kenny loyalist heretofore – was one of those last week calling on the Taoiseach to make his intentions known immediately after the Budget announcement in October. In other words, a case of wanting to know when – and not if – he plans to step down, which became even more relevant in the wake of a subsequent Irish Times-Ipsos-MRSI poll that saw Fine Gael support dropping two points to 24 per cent, while Fianna Fáil surged up to 33 per cent.
The Fine Gael leadership contenders, such as Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, who had parked their ambitions during the lengthy negotiations on the formation of a government and then again while it was bedding itself in, seem content to hide in the long grass for another while yet. They may also have to contend with Kenny admirers Frances Fitzgerald and Paschal Donohue in a leadership contest.
The question that they all need to consider seriously before pushing their own political ambitions too hard is: does the country really need such political upheaval in the light of the fragile nature of the government and the current international circumstances in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the EU?
Certainly, we do not need the leadership speculation going on for months and months on end and, even though Enda Kenny has this week re-stated his intention to remain on as Taoiseach to fulfill his mandate, the certainty this bravado has brought is only temporary and the impending political upheaval still lurks beneath the surface, which is not ideal for Fine Gael and its shaky minority government and – most importantly – for the greater good of the country at this critical juncture.