Enda Kenny will be elected taoiseach - but it won’t last long
Analysis: A likely scenario is one budget will be passed and then the election countdown will begin again, writes Fiach Kelly
Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny arriving at Government Buildings on Thursday. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Yet it is not a prospect many in Fine Gael relish. They want to be in government, of course, but the prospective government now facing Fine Gael does not hold much appeal.
Once the election results had been digested after polling day on February 26th, thoughts in Fine Gael turned to forming some sort of minority government with Independents and smaller parties.
Fianna Fáil was making shapes about forming a government, but was always going to fall short. Labour set its face against a return to power, although Joan Burton’s speech on Thursday outlined a shopping list for Fine Gael. It may vote for Kenny next week, if certain policy concerns are addressed, but it is unlikely to enter government.
From the outset, Fine Gael felt that an administration comprised solely of Fine Gael ministers – 15 senior and 15 junior from a total of 50 TDs – would lack democratic legitimacy.
It would not represent the wishes of the Irish people as expressed on polling day. A wider spread of power, with Independents and other parties in Cabinet, would be a greater reflection of the election result.
Although Thursday’s events in the Dáil mean Kenny will be elected taoiseach, the durability of the government he is likely to lead is questionable and is likely to fall short of the party’s hoped for democratic legitimacy.
Certainly no support
Of the 14 Independents who abstained on his candidacy for taoiseach, a number – Mattie McGrath and, it is understood, the Healy-Rae brothers – will certainly not support Kenny.
He must get 58 votes to ensure he is elected with a Fianna Fáil abstention. Kenny will be assisted by Michael Lowry, although the Tipperary Independent will not be part of a Fine Gael minority administration.
Dublin South-West Independent Katherine Zappone voted for Kenny, which means he has to secure the support of six more TDs to form a government that can survive if facilitated by Fianna Fáil.
There may be no need to assemble more Independents if Labour decides to re-enter government, but that too brings its problems of democratic legitimacy.
Independents – already extremely reluctant to support Kenny – would run a mile away from another Fine Gael-Labour coalition, although the Greens would immediately jump on board.
Fianna Fáil is also unlikely to facilitate such a minority coalition, since Martin has repeatedly said his party campaigned for a change of government.
Kenny must therefore still win over some Independents. The best prospects are Denis Naughten, Michael Harty, Michael Fitzmaurice, Kevin “Boxer” Moran, Seán Canney, Maureen O’Sullivan, with an outside chance of Finian McGrath, Shane Ross and John Halligan. The Independent Alliance wants to maintain a united front, and says it will do any deal as a group.
Struggle for Kenny
But some Independents say it will be a struggle for Kenny to reach 58 votes, and all maintain they want to see the agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on how a minority government will operate before committing their votes.
But how long can such a government last? Fine Gael plus another seven Independents, as well as Lowry offering support from Opposition, is not the democratically legitimate arrangement the party had initially envisaged.
Simon Coveney first said Fine Gael would aim for 70 seats, a target then downgraded to 65 and then to 60 on Thursday night. Fine Gael may still get there, but it is a tall order.
Another election in the coming months, while unlikely, cannot be discounted, and some sources said Kenny has mused aloud about such a prospect in recent days. The more probable scenario is that one budget will be passed, and then the election countdown will begin again.
The associated question to government formation is that of Kenny’s position. “Kenny wants to get in to get out,” is how one seasoned observer put it, arguing that the acting Taoiseach wants to return his party to power so he can step down on his own terms.
As has been said again and again to Fine Gael ministers, Independents would find it easier to vote for the party if Kenny was not leader. Ministers have replied, privately, that Kenny will be gone in the near future – between six and 18 months. Many think he could step down earlier.
Some Independents have even inquired about how quickly a Fine Gael leadership election could be wrapped up – and have been told it can be done within days. Yet, no matter how much Independents would wish it were so, Kenny’s position as leader of Fine Gael is not for them to question.
And if they were to make Kenny’s resignation a precondition of entering government, it would only strengthen his position. Fine Gael TD and members would rally to his side if there were any suggestions of outsiders trying to dislodge him.
Kenny, like any leader, has his enemies, but there is a genuine fondness for him in the party at large.
“The grassroots hold him in high esteem and appreciate all he has done for the party,” said one figure in regular contact with the Fine Gael rank and file. “But what has he had? Fourteen, 15 years as leader of Fine Gael? That is long enough.”
Those on the Seanad campaign trail also say that the feeling among councillors is that Kenny’s time is coming to an end.
“They want him gone, but they don’t want him pushed,” said one TD of the prevailing attitude. Kenny has already said he will not lead Fine Gael into another election and, as a shrewd political operator, he too is likely to know his leadership is coming to an end. And, when it does, the Fine Gael attitude towards its unloved government could change decisively.
“There will be no love for this on our side,” said a Fine Gael figure of a minority administration, already being viewed as a stopgap government unable to take tough decisions and plan for the long term.
“We could just as easily pull it down if we sort out the leadership.”