Departure of Lee now in the past, says Kenny

Thu, Feb 11, 2010, 00:00

FINE GAEL leader Enda Kenny told his parliamentary party last night that the issue of George Lee’s departure from the Dáil was now over, that is to say it belonged to the past, and that the former Dublin South TD should not be hounded because of his resignation.

The meeting’s overall mood was described as “fairly mixed” with a minority of speakers “slightly critical” of Mr Kenny’s leadership.

Speaking afterwards on condition of anonymity, one of Mr Kenny’s sharpest critics described the tone of the meeting as “fairly heavy”.

However, supporters of the leader were far more positive about the discussion.

The meeting began at 7pm but had to break up to allow deputies to vote on a private member’s motion in the Dáil.

The meeting then resumed.

The party’s deputy leader and finance spokesman, Richard Bruton, seen by some as an alternative leader, could not attend the party meeting as he was required to be in the Dáil chamber.

Several who were present told The Irish Timesthat Mr Kenny’s robust media response to the George Lee resignation had strengthened his leadership.

However, others were said to have complained that they were “getting it at the doors” that Mr Kenny was not up to the job.

The party leader himself was anxious to draw a line under the George Lee controversy and, in the course of a 25-minute speech going over the events of recent days, Mr Kenny was said to have told his colleagues that they should wish the former Dublin South TD and his family well for the future.

Speakers who were reported as being “slightly critical” of the leadership included TDs Lucinda Creighton from Dublin South East, Damien English from Meath West and Kilkenny senator John Paul Phelan.

Mr Kenny’s Mayo constituency colleague Michael Ring TD said there had been a frank and open discussion; the leader had made a good speech and his audience was happy with it.

Galway East TD Ulick Burke spoke of “the need to move on” from the Lee affair.

Kenny supporters described the mood of the meeting as “workmanlike”.

There was a general feeling that Mr Lee, who has been coming in for heavy media criticism from Fine Gael representatives, should be left alone from now on – that he had made a mistake going into politics and that was it.

Roscommon TD Frank Feighan spoke in support of the leader but the strongest support for Mr Kenny was said to have come from Bernard Durkan TD, although the latter said some unnamed members of the front bench needed to show “a bit more humility”.

Another Kenny supporter, who asked not to be named, said that the debate on Mr Lee had “turned about for us” and the public was now supporting Fine Gael against the former Dublin deputy.

Ms Creighton expressed criticism of what she described as a “lack of communication” between the leadership and the rest of the parliamentary party.

Earlier yesterday, Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes, who was campaign manager in the Dublin South byelection, told the Today with Pat Kennyradio programme that, in discussions with Mr Lee, the latter had complained about “a major reduction in his income” since leaving RTÉ to become a Dáil  backbencher.

However, Mr Lee contacted the programme to deny that financial considerations had anything to do with his decision to quit politics.

He said that the salaries and expenses for TDs, especially those who became ministers, were far better than the general pay levels in RTÉ.

“If money were the issue, I’d still be there,” Mr Lee added.

Speaking later to The Irish Times, Mr Hayes said he did not believe the resignation of Mr Lee had damaged the party leader. “I don’t think so, I think the issue is over.

“It’s damaging to the party, clearly, to go through this for the last number of days but, if anything, he has come out of it quite strongly.”

Mr Hayes said Mr Kenny had done some “really good” media interviews on the Lee affair.