Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s hold on power ebbs away

The Fine Gael leader should clarify his intentions

 

The past week has provided dismaying evidence of low standards in Irish public life. The abuse of child protection protocols within State organisations; the apparent immunity of those involved; the disgraceful treatment of Garda whistleblowers and the unedifying behaviour of senior politicians, all require comprehensive responses.

Public confidence in the probity of senior gardaí; in ministerial ability to change the force’s unacceptable culture and in the Government’s own behaviour are at stake.

Fine Gael TDs were appalled when Taoiseach Enda Kenny confessed he had provided inaccurate information concerning his contacts with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone in relation to Tusla and Sgt Maurice McCabe. It was possible consequences, rather than the misleading information, that concerned them most.

Facing into a Sinn Féin “no confidence”motion the Government needed direct or indirect support from Fianna Fáil to avoid what threatened to become, under Kenny, a second, catastrophic general election. Being so exposed and beholden to the traditional enemy was deeply traumatic. Up to then, Fine Gael ministers had believed they were in charge. When that notion evaporated, so did the Taoiseach’s hold on power.

What had been a slow Government retreat over mistreatment of Garda whistleblowers turned into a rout once allegations were made of child sexual abuse and Tusla became embroiled in the controversy. Cabinet confusion encouraged the pursuit of political advantage.

Febrile exchanges involving who said what to whom exposed the fractured, silo-like nature of ministerial activities. It ended with the Taoiseach apologising to the Dáil, while questions remained about the state of knowledge of Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald. On the substantive issue of alleged Garda wrongdoing, however, all demands were met. The proposed commission became a tribunal with expanded terms of reference.

What had been a slow Government retreat over mistreatment of Garda whistleblowers turned into a rout once allegations were made of child sexual abuse

Even before the Dáil vote of confidence, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney had signalled the need for a change in leadership. By declaring the party should be “election ready”, they set the wheels of a contest in motion. Since then, pressure on Kenny has temporarily abated and some indications of resistance have emerged. He wants to deal with Brexit negotiations and there have been ministerial calls – for various personal, strategic reasons – to allow him an extended “lap of honour”.

Leadership of the State goes beyond placating Kenny, who is a decent man, or in recognising past contributions. Ireland faces an extraordinary series of challenges that may not be met by a lame duck Taoiseach. Ordinary voters, as well as many TDs, were dismayed by his stumbling performances in the Dáil. If the Taoiseach wishes to do the State an important service, he will clarify his intentions.

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