Appalling political judgment does serious damage to Government

Enda Kenny has a lot of work to do to recover his authority over Fine Gael party

‘Truly miserable week’ for  Taoiseach Enda Kenny:  Photograph: Aidan Crawley

‘Truly miserable week’ for Taoiseach Enda Kenny: Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

The dramatic announcement by John McNulty of his withdrawal from the Seanad byelection capped a truly miserable week for Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his Government.

The appalling political judgment that sucked Fine Gael into a quagmire over the routine filling of a Seanad vacancy has done serious damage to the Government. The only question now is whether it has the capacity to recover its composure for the remainder of its term of office.

The Taoiseach’s acceptance of full responsibility in the Dáil yesterday should at least provide some breathing space. His admission that “my own standards were let slip and my own sense of integrity and trust did not measure up’’ showed that he grasped the full implications of the controversy.

His TDs were somewhat relieved to hear the Taoiseach say he accepted responsibility for “taking my eye off the situation when I should have been more diligent about seeing it through’’, but he has a lot of work to do to recover his former authority over his parliamentary party.

Until yesterday, Kenny mishandled the Seanad byelection at every turn. For a start, the wishes of the Fine Gael national executive were overlooked. Then came the mysterious decision to appoint a nominee from Donegal who had failed to get elected to the county council in May and finally, and most seriously of all, was the way in which McNulty was appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) in an apparent attempt to ensure that he had the qualifications to run for the vacancy.

Maybe there is some poetic justice in the fact that the Seanad has proved to be such a political minefield for the Taoiseach considering the hasty and ill-considered manner in which he announced his commitment to abolishing the Upper House when he was languishing in opposition back in 2009.

After his sweeping general election victory, Kenny decided to use his prerogative of appointing 11 members of the Seanad and to nominate seven of these from outside the ranks of the two Government parties.

He got little credit from the media or the public for expanding the pool of talent in the Seanad. Instead he got a considerable amount of grief because it meant the Government’s precarious majority in the Upper House vanished as soon as the pressure came on.

Minimised

The McNulty episode has put the tin hat on it. Apart altogether from the damage to Kenny’s authority, the Government’s majority in the Seanad will shrink still further.

Assuming that most Fine Gael and Labour TDs take McNulty at his word and abstain from voting, the vacancy should go to the Fianna Fáil nominee Gerry Craughwell who, on paper at least, should see off the challenge of Sinn Féin councillor Catherine Seeley.

That will leave the combined Opposition in the Seanad with 31 votes as against 28 for the Coalition and it could make the passage of legislation through the Upper House very messy. Ultimately, the Seanad can only delay legislation for 90 days, but a succession of defeats on important legislation would be deeply embarrassing for the Government. Its only consolation is that the Seanad does not have the power to veto money Bills so the budget is safe, assuming it is passed by the Dáil.

More important than the legislative headaches the Government faces in the Dáil is the potential damage done to its credibility with the electorate. After what was already a very difficult year with a disastrous performance in the local and European elections, the Coalition parties face an uphill struggle to recover public support before the general election in a little over a year’s time.

The Taoiseach also faces the challenge of recovering his standing with his own parliamentary party and the wider Fine Gael organisation. The job starts tonight with the weekly meeting of the parliamentary party.

Reshuffle

The number of those unhappy with the leadership has grown in strength since the Cabinet reshuffle in July, with a number of individuals feeling let down that they did not get promotion. Whether that will prompt them to join the anti-Kenny camp is another matter.

A lot will depend on how the Taoiseach handles himself at the parliamentary party meeting tonight. Most of his TDs and Senators appear to feel that he made the best of a bad situation yesterday by the way he accepted responsibility for the entire mess. They will be anxious, though, for reassurance that he will pay much closer attention to the concerns of his backbenchers for the remainder of the Coalition’s term.

The silver lining on the current cloud is that it did not prompt any serious division among the Coalition parties. Labour took the view that this was a Fine Gael problem and there were no demands for heads on plates, just a determination to reform the system of appointments to public bodies once and for all.

What everybody in Government is hoping for now is to move the agenda on to the budget in two weeks’ time where there might be at least some good news.

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