Fine Gael pulls back from the brink of bloodbath

Party almost ‘tore itself apart’ much like the period before Kenny became leader

Fine Gael appears to have pulled back from the brink of a destructive internal battle that had the capacity to tear it apart, bring down the Government and further undermine the public's trust in politics.

Watching the antics of some Fine Gael TDs, as they attempted to humiliate the most successful leader the party has ever had, it is tempting to recycle a memorable line coined by one of the great figures of British politics almost 200 years ago.

"There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour," wrote Benjamin Disraeli.

Yet that is only half the story. There are valid reasons why politics is such a brutal business. Change and renewal are necessary to inoculate democracy against the natural desire of those in power to cling on for too long.


Managing leadership change is never easy, even for the most successful political parties, but making a mess of it can doom a party to a downward spiral of perpetual opposition.

That is what happened to Fine Gael after the voluntary departure of Garret FitzGerald in 1987. The party was riven by dissenting factions for more than a decade and did not win power in an election for the following quarter of a century.

John Bruton did become taoiseach for 2½ years because of the unexpected collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition at the end of 1994, but that happened without an election taking place.

Neither Alan Dukes in 1989, nor Bruton in 1992 or 1997, or Michael Noonan in 2002 managed to win power for Fine Gael while Enda Kenny only achieved it at the second attempt in 2011.

One leading member of the party mused about the folly some of his colleagues came close to inflicting on themselves over the past week. “Have they forgotten how this party tore itself apart in the decade before Enda became leader and what he has done for the country since he became Taoiseach?”

Plots and treachery

In the event, it appears that Fine Gael has managed to avoid a bloodbath. One reason is that the majority of TDs wanted nothing to do with plots and treachery. The other is the sobering impact on the likely contenders of the old adage that he who wields the knife rarely wears the crown.

The media frenzy that developed last weekend was inflated by the impression created by supporters of Leo Varadkar that he was pawing the ground in impatience for Kenny to depart.

Varadkar fuelled that notion on Saturday with a statement calling on Kenny to outline his intentions as the situation was “distracting and destabilising for the Government, the party and the country”.

However, on Sunday his main rival Simon Coveney changed the tone of the discussion in an interview on RTÉ's The Week in Politics, making no bones about the fact that he had a very different approach to Varadkar's.

“He wants to push things and have timelines from the Taoiseach. In my view we should trust the Taoiseach with this,” said Coveney who added that Kenny should go to Washington on St Patrick’s Day and deal with the leadership issue quickly after that.

Varadkar immediately adopted the same line and the pressure suddenly eased to the great relief of most Fine Gael TDs.

The expected time frame now is that when Kenny returns from his St Patrick's Day visit to the White House he will set out a process to enable Fine Gael to select a new leader by the middle of April. That would enable him to step down as Taoiseach immediately the Dáil resumes on April 27th after the Easter recess.

Negotiating mandate

That sequence would allow him to attend the next European Council meeting in early March and another mooted one in early April meeting which will sign off on the negotiating mandate to be given to Michel Barnier who will handle the Brexit talks on behalf of the European Commission.

Given that the Brexit process will take two years – and probably far longer – it would make sense for Kenny to sign off on the negotiating strategy, which he has been working on since last summer, before handing it on to his successor who will see it through for the next two years or more.

That timeline would also allow Kenny to pass three important milestones. The first, on March 9th, will see him serve out six continuous years in the taoiseach’s office. The second, on April 20th, will make him the longest-serving Fine Gael taoiseach, having exceeded John A Costello’s record.

The final milestone, on April 24th, is Kenny’s 66th birthday when he will have reached the State’s official retirement age.

He accepted even before the 2016 election that he would not lead Fine Gael into the subsequent one. Having served as a TD for 41 years, almost 15 as Fine Gael leader and six as Taoiseach it would be an honourable way to depart the stage. Unlike some of his predecessors it can truly be said of him that he did the State some service.