How will partners in Government react to leadership battle?
Enda Kenny’s replacement as Fine Gael leader must deal with local demands
The newly formed Cabinet one year ago: change is now in the air as Enda Kenny steps down. Photograph: Maxwellphotography.ie
Walking through the corridors of Leinster House a number of weeks ago, a member of the Independent Alliance reflected on the group’s poor opinion poll ratings in recent weeks.
The TD said the public needed to be reminded of the Alliance’s existence and this deputy spotted the perfect opportunity to make some political noise: when the new Fine Gael leader takes over from Enda Kenny but has yet to be elected taoiseach by the Dáil.
The Alliance has said it will not seek to reopen the programme for government it agreed with Fine Gael during weeks of painstaking negotiations last year.
But the new Fine Gael leader, whoever he or she is – and almost certainly it will be a he – will have to deal with local demands, such as from Finian McGrath on Beaumont Hospital and from Shane Ross on Stepaside Garda station.
It is likely the new taoiseach will have to provide renewed commitments that funding for those pet projects will be met before the Independent arm of the Government votes for that person as taoiseach in the Dáil.
The new taoiseach will also appoint a new cabinet, one that is expected to reflect the generational change in Fine Gael, with Michael Noonan expected to depart with Enda Kenny.
The Independent Ministers, however, fully expect to be kept in their current briefs. That does not just apply to Shane Ross as Minister for Transport but Katherine Zappone as Minister for Children and Denis Naughten as Minister for Communications.
Privately, many of the Independents welcome the idea of a new taoiseach as much as some in Fine Gael because they believe it will refresh and reinvigorate the Government.
The trickier question will be the other crutch of the Government, with Fianna Fáil, providing support from Opposition, eyeing up a new Fine Gael leader who will put a fresh face on its main political rivals.
Fianna Fáil abstention will be required to elect the new taoiseach in the Dáil. It too has maximum leverage to extract concessions, but party sources so far say its demands will be minimal.
The confidence-and-supply deal between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael allows for the election of a new taoiseach and a new cabinet, and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has always said the delivery of agreed policy is what matters.
However, Fianna Fáil too will have requests of Simon Coveney or Leo Varadkar – whichever becomes taoiseach. Fianna Fáil sources say they want a commitment that Opposition Bills will progress through the legislative process, rather than being passed at initial stages but never fully acted upon.
The main criticism of this Dáil and Government has been its legislative lethargy and a Fianna Fáil source said it wants a “commitment to agreeing to looking at how more legislation can be seen through to committee and final stages” from the next taoiseach.
Fianna Fáil veteran Willie O’Dea summed it up yesterday. “In the event of a new leader being elected in Fine Gael, I think we will have to have another look at the supply-and-confidence arrangement before we decide to support another government led by that individual,” he said.
The Limerick TD cited the element of the confidence-and-supply deal that stipulates that Opposition Bills that had been passed in the Dáil should proceed along the legislative process within 10 weeks.
Sluggish on Bills
It has been a bugbear for Fianna Fáil, and for others in the Opposition, that the Government, because of its extreme minority nature allows Bills pass through opening stages but then does not act upon them.
The party wants “stimulation rather than stagnation” and an agreement that legislation both the Government and Fianna Fáil agree on will be brought to final stages.
Yet there will be other concerns with Fianna Fáil. As can be expected in a Fine Gael leadership race, the contenders will trumpet their ability to stand up to the old enemy.
Policies that are outside the parameters of confidence-and-supply deal will also be floated by the candidates, but these will be for the next Fine Gael election manifesto rather than the current Government.
Nevertheless, Fianna Fáil TDs may find it hard to bite their tongues in the weeks ahead. They also expect the new leader to get some bounce in the opinion polls, but do not expect an election any time this year.
It is not in their interests to bring this government down yet, and many political sources – including in Fine Gael – believe Kenny’s successor is more likely to cut and run to the country in October.
Fianna Fáil will wait and watch, and hope to knock the halo off the new Fine Gael leader by the year’s end.
Yet the political temperature and old antagonism between the two parties will reach a new peak during the forthcoming contest. It will be astonishing if some of the insults and barbs do not cause some damage to the architecture of this Government.