Noel Whelan: FF needs something bigger to collapse the Government

Enda Kenny’s rickety relationships all took a hit over his handling of the McCabe scandal

 “It is difficult to see how whoever succeeds Enda Kenny could do a worse job of it than he did this week.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

“It is difficult to see how whoever succeeds Enda Kenny could do a worse job of it than he did this week.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Constructed as it was on three fault lines, the current Government was always going to be susceptible to dramatic shifts in the political landscape. This week’s policing and political earthquakes caused the Government to wobble violently. The aftershocks may yet cause it to collapse.

The three vulnerable relationships on which the Government depends have all come under severe strain in the last seven days.

Fine Gael’s relationship with the Independent Ministers has been badly damaged. Katherine Zappone has been among those most loyal to Enda Kenny in the current Government. The Taoiseach did her a great disservice in her absence last weekend when he claimed that she had not apprised him of the fact that she had spoken to Maurice McCabe about a Tusla file.

While Kenny has since sought to correct the public record, he ended up doing so in such a convoluted manner it caused real difficulties for his own position.

The weakness of Fine Gael’s relationship with other Independent Ministers in the Coalition was further exposed when the Government had to agree to something called “an external independent audit of An Garda Síochána”. This allowed Shane Ross and his Independent Alliance to claim some influence. It is not clear how this “external audit” will line up in the squadron of outside bodies that already exist to oversee policing.

The audit must surely overlap with the function of some or all of the Garda Inspectorate, the Garda Ombudsman Commission, the Police Authority and now the tribunal of inquiry. In reality, this new entity is no more than a political trinket for the Independent Alliance.

Painful

The relationship between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is also damaged. Fianna Fáil is the author of the uncomfortable position it found itself in this week. Straddling Opposition and Government in the way the confidence and supply relationship requires it to do was always going to get sore.

This week it was particularly painful for Fianna Fáil frontbenchers to have to explain how the party would not vote no confidence in the Government while at the same time strongly criticising the same Government for its shambolic handling of the McCabe fallout. The Government had enough support from Independents to enable Fianna Fáil to abstain rather than having to actually vote confidence on the motion.

Fianna Fáil’s hold over the minority Government may now actually have loosened. Having saved it on the McCabe issue this week, it will be more difficult for the party to threaten to pull the plug on a less significant crisis in future.

At one time the Taoiseach could be seen as crucial to the smooth operation of this makeshift Coalition and the arrangement with Fianna Fáil, but no longer. It is difficult to see how whoever succeeds Kenny could do a worse job of it than he did this week.

The third relationship on which this makeshift Government was built was the one between Kenny and his parliamentary party. The poor performance over the past week has sundered what was left of that relationship.

What is happening within Fine Gael this weekend is in many ways the working out of events that happened almost exactly a year ago. Kenny’s performance during the election campaign was disastrous. The fact that Fine Gael lost 16 seats left his leadership fatally wounded.

Borrowed time

His deft handling of the subsequent negotiations on government formation with the Independents, and separately with Fianna Fáil, and the fact that he retained the office of Taoiseach brought him some respite. In light of the election result, however, he was always on borrowed time. Kenny’s time has now run out.

The outcome of party leadership contests often defy predictions. They are shaped by the circumstances in which they occur. The dramatic collapse of Boris Johnson’s campaign for the leadership of the British Conservative party is such a recent case.

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have now been forced to take their moment. This week’s events also mean that Frances Fitzgerald is now out of this leadership race.

For months now all sources in Fine Gael have been saying that Varadkar has a comfortable lead in the succession stakes, with Coveney in second place. It will be worth watching the pace on the inside lane, however. If Paschal Donohue runs he could quickly emerge as a contender.

The former general secretary of Fianna Fáil, Frank Wall, who was my first boss 25 years ago, use to have an adage which is as true now as it was then. The polite version of it went like this: “sometimes there is so much dirt in the political pipes that, in order to clear the blockages, either a leadership change or a general election is required.”.

If Fine Gael is not careful it may end up getting both.

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