Stephen Collins: Pressure mounts for Enda Kenny to name departure date

There is no appetite for a heave but there is a palpable desire for an orderly process

Enda Kenny leaves after the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, on June 29th. Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

The Fine Gael-led minority Government has had its worst week since taking office. A rapid succession of events has raised serious doubts about how long the fragile structure can last and has also put the focus on Enda Kenny’s timetable for departure.

The wrangle over the Cabinet decision to allow a free vote on the Mick Wallace abortion Bill showed that the real threat to stability comes not from Fianna Fáil but from within the Government itself.

Shane Ross’s decision to vote against his Cabinet colleagues on a piece of legislation that is clearly unconstitutional made a mockery of collective responsibility. His dismissal of Attorney General Máire Whelan’s advice, which is obviously correct, compounded the affront to his Cabinet colleagues.

If Katherine Zappone, who has a strong record on women's rights, could vote with her Cabinet colleagues, there was no obvious reason Ross could not do so, apart from his desire to snub the Taoiseach, whom he described as "a political corpse" in the aftermath of the election.


There is deep anger in Fine Gael at the way Ross behaved, but it was a wake-up call to the party's TDs about the Government's chances of surviving for anything like a full term.

It also put Kenny’s leadership plans at the heart of debate. While he has already indicated that he will not lead Fine Gael into the next election, there has been some ambiguity about when the Taoiseach intends to depart. The prevailing view in the party before this week was that he would stand down in a year or so.

Astonishing intervention

That suddenly changed when the leadership issue was raised at the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday night. The subsequent astonishing intervention of party chief whip

Regina Doherty

to publicly urge Kenny to clarify his plans demonstrated that the leadership is now a live issue in the party.

While many in Fine Gael rightly believe that Kenny has never got the credit he deserves for rescuing his party from oblivion and leading the country out of deep recession, there is a strong feeling that the time for his departure cannot be delayed past the end of the year.

There is no mood in the parliamentary party for a leadership heave, as yesterday's statement from Leo Varadkar demonstrated. However, there is a palpable desire for an orderly process to ensure that a new leader is put in place within a reasonable timeframe so that the party can prepare itself for a general election that could come at any moment.



Irish Times

poll shows Varadkar is the favourite with the public but Simon Coveney is in a strong second place and they are probably evenly matched within the parliamentary party. It looks very much as if one of them will be the next leader.

Whichever of them succeeds will face the same conundrum as Kenny in attempting to win public support for the kind of responsible action required to ensure the country does not revert to the kind of policies that led to the economic crash.

One of the messages from the general election, and opinion polls before and since, is that a sizeable majority of Irish people like voting for Opposition politicians of all hues making all kinds of impossible demands, but only a minority think about electing a government.

The politicians who succeed in this environment are the populists who denounce every action of government and offer no coherent alternative. It is all of a piece with the mood across the democratic world. The two elections in Spain, the referendum in the UK and the onward march of Donald Trump in the US are all part of a swing against established political norms.

The president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker famously said that the problem with modern democracy is that governments generally know what to do in a crisis but don't know how to get re-elected having done it.

Going by the results of the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll Fianna Fáil appears to have cracked the puzzle. The key to holding and increasing popularity is to stay in opposition, but find a formula to exert maximum leverage without taking office. It is power without responsibility but the voters appear to lap it up.

The jump of nine points in support for Fianna Fáil revealed in the poll is remarkable, but it is part of an upward trend that began during the election campaign.

Micheál Martin managed to tap into the public mood during the election campaign with his emphasis on fairness. Ironically, as economist Jim O’Leary pointed out in the aftermath, the Fine Gael manifesto actually did better than the Fianna Fáil one on the fairness barometer, but that is not the message the electorate absorbed.


A feature of the recent election and probably most previous ones is that a majority of voters based their decision on emotion rather than fact, and the leader or party best equipped to tap into the emotion of the day was most successful.

Martin was the clear winner on this front in February and by staying out of power and avoiding having to take responsibility for unpopular decisions, he has managed to keep up the momentum.

The poll shows the Fianna Fáil strategy is sucking some oxygen out of the lungs of various Independents and smaller parties, and if that process continues, the party will be in a strong position to return to power after the next election. How it will cope with the return to unpopularity that will inevitably entail is another question.