Electrifying Enda survives near death experience confidence intact


Enda Kenny’s closing speech to his colleagues at the party meeting was described as “electrifying”

SUPPORTERS AND opponents of Enda Kenny’s leadership gave him a standing ovation at the end of the five-hour meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party at Leinster House yesterday.

This was prior to the vote on the motion of confidence in his leadership proposed by Mr Kenny and followed his final summing-up speech which was described as “electrifying” by supporters, one of whom remarked: “He was on fire.” In his summing-up speech, Mr Kenny said he was “not going to be governed by polls” which he described as “a snapshot in time” and he pointed out that taking particular policy positions could affect popularity from time to time. He added: “There will be no rancour, whatever happens.” Speaking in emotional tones, he recalled how he was greeted by 3,000 supporters on his return home to Mayo after becoming party leader and what he remembered most about the occasion was “not the bonfires but the pride in their eyes”.

He also recalled how former leader John Bruton, brother of Richard, had appointed him to a frontbench position with the words, “You know the people”. As proposer of the motion, Mr Kenny was entitled to give the opening address and to reply to the debate at the end. Although the meeting was held in private, sources said that, in his opening remarks, he set out his record as party leader and his achievements in electoral terms.

He also outlined his vision of a country that would “care for the weak” as well as resolving the problems in the economy. “We are on the brink of government,” he added.

Opposing the motion, Richard Bruton described himself as “a politician of conviction” who was “neither right nor left”.  He added, according to sources at the meeting: “The polling data would suggest that there are issues to be sorted.” Supporting the leader, Ireland South MEP and former president of the Gaelic Athletic Association Seán Kelly said: “There is no case against this man.” He stressed the importance of loyalty, which was so fundamental in the GAA.

Dublin South-Central TD Catherine Byrne said: “This whole thing is bigger than any of us.” Urging support for the leader, she said there was a lesson to be drawn from the Bible story of King Solomon about the importance of making the right decision.

Jim Higgins MEP said: “We should not be here.” Sharply criticising the heave against Mr Kenny he said it was a “knee-jerk reaction” to recent events.

Olwyn Enright TD, speaking against Mr Kenny’s motion, said there was a “need for change”.

She felt that the leader “didn’t strike an emotional chord with people”.

Cork TD Simon Coveney said it was “a very difficult day in a difficult week”. He expressed high praise for Mr Kenny’s contribution to the party but added that the leadership was not a “reward” for previous work: “This is not about past successes but about the future.”

Dún Laoghaire TD Seán Barrett said the heave had damaged Fine Gael.

“The party has got to get its act together behind the leader; the public won’t vote for us unless we get our act together.” In a short speech against the motion, Leo Varadkar said: “The public has lost confidence in Enda.” He pointed out that the election would be a three-way contest.

Donegal TD Dinny McGinley drew attention to the pictures of former Fine Gael leaders on display in the room. He recalled how Liam Cosgrave was about to be overthrown at one stage but ended up as Taoiseach some months later.

He also recalled how another former leader, James Dillon, had addressed a party event in the 1980s when Fine Gael was also “in turmoil” over issues such as divorce and how he had told the attendance that loyalty to the leader was a basic tenet of politics because, “United we stand, divided we fall.” Mr McGinley was highly critical of those who had said they would not serve on Mr Kenny’s front bench if he won the vote of confidence.

Alan Shatter TD said: “We shouldn’t be obsessed by opinion polls and Messiahs.” He criticised what he described as “poor political judgment” by the critics of the leadership.

Senator Paschal Donohoe spoke against the motion of confidence but added that it put him in a “very difficult position”.

Senator Frances Fitzgerald said that, if it were true that Enda Kenny failed to connect with the voters, then why were there so many Fine Gael-elected representatives in the room? Stressing that unity was “extremely important”, she said the party would be judged by the way it behaved from now on.

Opposing the motion, Roscommon TD Denis Naughten said he was upset that his party loyalty was being questioned but added that there was a “need to broaden Fine Gael’s appeal”.

Former education spokesman Brian Hayes said he was opposing the motion with a “heavy heart” because he greatly respected Enda Kenny, but the party was going down in the polls and “serious questions” were being asked.

Also opposing the motion, Limerick TD Kieran O’Donnell expressed great appreciation of Mr Kenny’s work but added that there was “a mood for change”.

In an impassioned speech, Kildare TD Bernard Durkan said that to “ditch” a man of Mr Kenny’s ability would be a poor day for the country. “We’ve been here before.” He went on to question the timing and judgment of Richard Bruton and his supporters.

Dr James Reilly said those who opposed Mr Kenny were arguing that, “there is never a wrong time to make the right decision” but his response to that was, “there is never a right time to make the wrong decision.” Listing the party leader’s hard work and achievements, he said no one could claim that Mr Kenny was looking tired and added: “He has taken us this far and I am sticking with him.” Cork TD Bernard Allen said he had been loyal to every Fine Gael leader since he joined the party: “Otherwise I would resign”. Mr Kenny had brought Fine Gael from “the brink of extinction” to being the largest party in the State.

Meath East TD Shane McEntee said it was a time “for standing your ground and not running”. He blamed himself as well as others for the fact that, “we were at 35 per cent in the polls and we sat on it.” He said he had met a constituent recently in Slane who gave him reasons why he should support Richard Bruton, “but when I said, ‘if we put in Richard, will you vote for us?’, she kept on walking”. Senator Ciaran Cannon, former leader of the now-defunct Progressive Democrats, said the party was “deluding itself” if it thought there was a “Messiah” who could lead it to 50 per cent or 60 per cent in the polls and he recalled that the PDs had a “great leader” in Mary Harney who achieved very high personal ratings but this was not reflected in the figures attained by the party itself.

He pointed out that, despite heavy media coverage, his old party no longer existed and he cautioned his colleagues against overestimating the importance of the media coverage. Cavan Senator Joe O’Reilly said that, despite recent poll results, “in the tests that matter, ie, every election, we have increased our number of seats”.

Coming out of the meeting, participants said there was “a discernible lack of rancour” and one TD remarked that: “Everybody left in good humour and shook hands.” Earlier, at the start of the meeting, sources said that Mr Kenny and Mr Bruton “shook hands and chatted together”.

The meeting, which started at 11.30am, was interrupted at about 2.30 pm for a vote in the Dáil and then continued until 4.45 pm. A corner of the room was partitioned off to make a polling-booth, members were called up one by one to take a voting paper which they completed and placed in the ballot-box.

The count was conducted by party chairman Pádraic McCormack and Senator Paschal Donohoe and although the result was given, no figures were revealed. Various sources estimated the margin of victory for Mr Kenny at six or “between four and seven”.

At the end of his summing-up speech, the party leader received a standing ovation from most of those present, including those opposing the motion and sources said there were “tears in the eyes” of some of Mr Kenny’s critics.

Sources who were present at the meeting said the theme of Mr Kenny’s critics was the need for “connecting with the public at large” but, as one TD said, “It wasn’t all totally pointed or personal towards Enda.”