I was clear in my support for Richard Bruton when he challenged Enda Kenny for the leadership of the party. But whatever my opinion of his capabilities, for him and the others on his side on the front bench to challenge the party leader without much planning or seemingly any communication with backbench TDs was foolhardy. They easily left themselves open to be bested by the workings of Enda, Phil Hogan, Paul Kehoe and others, and from this perspective, Enda Kenny deservedly came out ahead on the day.
Enda Kenny has come out stronger after the heave, as he showed himself to have Machiavellian capabilities that had not before been attributed to him. Whatever else, no longer will there be a perception of mutterings and the possibility of a heave overshadowing his leadership in the run-up to the election. Of course many of those leading the challenge said criticized Kenny in ways that might seem awkward now, but that is no more than could be expected in the heat of an election contest.
The new front bench is promising. Given the circumstances of the challenge, it was to be expected that Richard Bruton would not return to Finance, but he will be a very capable and experienced voice in Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, a position he held as a Minister during the Rainbow Government. Equally, Michael Noonan in Finance will be a strong performer, hard on the facts, and he won’t hold back any punches. Seán Barrett, Minister for Defence and the Marine, will be an asset in Foreign Affairs, and is one of our older heavyweights.
At the outset, I wrote that it was important that whatever the result of the challenge, it was important that the new front bench wouldn’t foment any divisions by being composed primarily of one camp or another. Previous party leaders have made that mistake, including Noonan, who left Enda Kenny off the front bench after beating him in the contest to succeed John Bruton. Enda has wisely avoided such a clear statement, while using it as an opportunity to evaluate the performance of all of the front bench to date. While we will wait till the autumn to see how the front bench performs in each of their portfolios, this has gone well. With Billy Timmins having made clear his intentions to step aside, I was glad to see my other constituency TD Andrew Doyle get a position. The one surprise, though it had been speculated on, is James Reilly’s promotion to Deputy Leader. I would have felt Phil Hogan a more natural choice for that position.
|Deputy Leader and Health||James Reilly|
|Enterprise, Jobs and Economic Planning||Richard Bruton|
|Foreign Affairs||Sean Barrett|
|Communications and Natural Resources||Leo Varadkar|
|Environment, Heritage and Local Government||Phil Hogan|
|Justice and Law Reform||Alan Shatter|
|Education and Skills||Fergus O’Dowd|
|Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs||Frank Feighan|
|Agriculture, Fisheries and Food||Andrew Doyle|
|Social Protection||Michael Ring|
|Tourism, Culture and Sport||Jimmy Deenihan|
|Innovation and Research||Deirdre Clune|
|Small Business||John Perry|
|Older Citizens||Catherine Byrne|
|Chief Whip||Paul Kehoe|
If it wasn’t for the Fine Gael leadership challenge, few would even have paid much notice to today’s motion of confidence in Brian Cowen, which was going to pass in his favour one way or other, and certainly be next week, no one would have remembered anything bar perhaps the odd witty comment. This is why, despite the good story it makes, it’s not actually that much of an issue that Richard Bruton’s challenge to Enda Kenny has this unfortunate element of timing. What matters is that between now and the election, the public is periodically reminded of the findings of the Honohan and the Regling-Watson reports, and why Fianna Fáil has lost the moral authority to be re-elected and claim to be able to manage the economy.
I also don’t really get this obsession with persistent confidence motions, with the withdrawal of pairings, in some vain hope that a random Fianna Fáil backbencher will fail to go through the government lobbies. The government has far lost the effective support of only Joe Behan and Finian McGrath. Even those who have publicly claimed a lack of confidence in Brian Cowen like John McGuinness, and those who have resigned the government whip, like McDaid, Scanlon and Devins, consistently go through the lobbies to back the government. Enda Kenny tried the same stunt after the local and European elections, in an attempt to find faults in government cohesion, which resulted in greater unity and common purpose between the two government parties. If the government really looks like it could fall, if it clearly loses support of enough of those independents, then go ahead and test confidence.
This might also have been what forced Kenny’s hand in asking for Richard Bruton’s resignation. As he explained yesterday, he didn’t feel he could question the confidence in Cowen while he didn’t himself have confidence in the man sitting next to him. Enda Kenny’s decision in this regard made this a plain choice between Fine Gael led by Enda Kenny but without Bruton or those Ivan Yates yesterday on The Frontline described as the best and the brightest on the front bench, and Fine Gael led by Richard Bruton. If that’s the choice, there’s only one option.
Does Fine Gael need a change in leadership to hope to lead the next government? No, but it might still be a good idea.
Whether or not Richard Bruton decides to challenge Enda Kenny’s leadership of the party at the parliamentary party, Fine Gael has the policies at hand to convince people that we should lead government. We will win based on policies, such as NewEra, which should be sold for what it is, a plan to improve our competitiveness by introducing a business orientation to the provision of services like broadband, water and energy, or NewPolitics, which will reduce the scale of our government institutions while increasing accountability and accessibility. We should convince people on the basis of the positions we have taken over the years, whether in opposing elements of social partnership like benchmarking, or in the past two years, taking a case-by-case rather than a populist approach to government actions. Here Fine Gael should be seen favourably against Labour. Fine Gael supported the guarantee of bank deposits, but while opposing that bailout of bondholders. Fine Gael supported the Croke Park deal with the trade union leaders, something Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party couldn’t take a stand on until Jack O’Connor had given the word that it had SIPTU support.
As I have written before, Enda Kenny has been a very good leader in electoral terms. At the 2002 general, when the party fell to 31 seats, some commentators spoke of a continual demise in the party’s fortunes. Within two years of Kenny’s leadership, the party had bested Fianna Fáil for the first time, beating them at the European elections in 2004. He led the party to 51 seats in 2007 and then Fine Gael became the largest party at a local level in 2009. This is an incredible record for his eight years of leadership to date.
But even after all that, Enda Kenny might not be the best man to lead the party into the next election. We are facing a contest primarily between Fine Gael and Labour, and Labour have gained ground. Even if we can win some of this back, to find ourselves ahead of Labour again, the ratio in seats between the two parties after the next election will be crucial. In ways, by their commitment to many of the elements of social partnership through their trade union links, Labour is simply proposing more of the same. It is important for the country that Fine Gael has a very clear advantage over Labour.
It is unfortunate to say it, but despite his good work internally, in bringing many good candidates into the party and forward to electoral success, Enda Kenny is not popular nationally, and particularly in Dublin. He is not disliked, many simply do not see him as an alternative Taoiseach. We have to be realistic and wonder how much of the fortune the party has had in the polls was due to our own people and policies, and how much was because we were seen as the most likely alternative to Fianna Fáil.
This is not just about Friday’s Irish Times/MRBI poll, or the last Sunday Times/Red C poll, which showed the party stagnating in support. There have been internal mutterings about Kenny’s leadership for a while, reflecting large sections of the general public. These rose to prominence after the resignation of George Lee, but no one in the parliamentary party wanted to give him credit for deciding the fate of the party leader.
I do believe the party would be stronger nationally led by Richard Bruton, provided the parliamentary party gets behind him fully were he to succeed Enda Kenny. He does command confidence and respect, of a sort which the Irish people now desire. This should not be seen as a sign of internal division and rancour, as the party has successfully avoided since 2002, but rather as our best strategic decision when facing one of the most important elections for the country in recent decades. In all likelihood that before the next election, there will be a three-way leadership debate. Richard Bruton would be seen as a fresh face, and his command of economics would be reassuring in that event. The parliamentary party have to face this action head on, and not let it linger. Even if Enda Kenny were to come out of this continuing as leader, it would put the matter publicly behind the party.
One way or other, this needs to be resolved this week, resolved decisively and put to rest. And most importantly, we can’t let this lead to continuing divisions in the front bench into different camps after this week.
Originally posted on Facebook
In yesterday’s Irish Times, the opinion poll included two questions which have little precedent, one comparing the current Taoiseach to his predecessor and another comparing the Fine Gael leader to his Deputy. In both cases, The Irish Times got the result they were hoping for, from both newsworthy and editorial viewpoint perspectives. Between Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, the former Taoiseach scored 50% to the incumbent’s 24%, and Richard Bruton scored 46% to Enda Kenny’s 28%.
This is not the first time recently that The Irish Times/MRBI poll has a political edge in the questions asked. Last year they asked for approval ratings for Brian Cowen as Tánaiste. This was at the time an attempt to undermine Bertie Ahern’s standing, under the pretence that they had asked for approval ratings of Tánaistí since 1993, but they just happened to be party leaders as well. In that case, why did they not ask for approval ratings for the current Tánaiste, Mary Coughlan, in this weekend’s poll?
That’s not to say that if they do succeed in undermining Enda Kenny, I wont be a little pleased with the outcome. Had Fine Gael done not quite as well last year, there’s a good chance that Kenny would have been ousted in Richard Bruton’s favour, but as they went from 31 seats to 51, there was little grounds for a criticism of his leadership. But if there’s to be a change of government, I would far rather Bruton became Taoiseach than Kenny, as it seems does The Irish Times.