My political column from the Examiner, January 6th 2007
ENDA KENNY started 2007 like a man who had thrown off all the shackles of last autumn and winter. “This year will be different,” he seemed to say. All those reverses in opinion polls will be overcome. I will also forget the haymes I made of taking on Bertie over his Manchester payments.
Onwards and upwards! And what better way than taking a good old swipe at an even more unpopular figure in Irish politics, Michael McDowell?
The first two days of January were great for Kenny. Fine Gael’s new “attack” poster campaign got great coverage, as did Kenny’s planned series of nationwide rallies to rally the troops and up his profile. On yer bike, Enda, go out and win it.
But like all new year’s resolutions, the feel-good glow lasted all of 24 hours.
This time the guy who put the broom handle in the spokes was John Deasy. The party’s toddler, Damien English, also gave Kenny a kick as he tumbled to the ground — but young Damien can’t be blamed because he didn’t have a clue about what he was doing when he agreeing to have his comments quoted publicly. The effect of it all was that Fine Gael and Kenny got totally flattened.
In an “Enda Kenny, My Part in his Downfall” moment, the latest mini-crisis had its beginnings in my interview with the Fine Gael leader in the Irish Examiner.
I asked him at the end of the interview would he continue as leader should he narrowly fail to win the election?
It was a throwaway question, the kind that’s been often asked before.
Kenny’s reply was general and unspecific.
“To go to the cusp and not achieve, it would be sore, very sore,” he said.
And then he added: “I am an optimist and we are in here to win it.”
Nothing too dramatic. But significantly, he sidestepped the question about stepping down — or at least he didn’t baldly state that this was his one and only shot at the prize.
And this is what seems to have got up John Deasy’s gander the next day when he threw down the gauntlet during his interview on local Waterford station, WLR, .
Deasy is the antithesis of spin. He is more than unspun. He is unspinnable, completely so. When asked a direct question, he will give a direct answer. More than that, it’s likely to be blunt. He tends to go against the grain of a carefully choreographed party line. He is honest of opinion, forthright and outspoken. He can also be stubborn, contrary and one-sided.
And when this question came up, Deasy said the leadership issue was always decided by the parliamentary party after a general election (fair enough). But he went further than that, saying that Enda Kenny should step down after the next election. Deasy also let it be known that he’d put himself up as a candidate if necessary (on the off chance that nobody else challenged Kenny).
Yes, Deasy can argue that he just restated party policy. But there was a sting in the tail, a bit of subliminal stuff going on. The message I took from what he said was that Kenny has one shot at the leadership. And a strong strain of pessimism about Fine Gael’s chances in the next election.
I have no problem with what Deasy said. None at all. Why shouldn’t we have some dissenting voices within our parties? It would be good to see a little of it within Fianna Fáil, where the Politburo controlled by Comrades Ahern and Cowen brooks no dissent whatsoever. All FF backbenchers ever seem to do is to mutter privately. Fat lot of good that does. And all we get is the party line, as stale and limp as old lettuce.
Where I do have a problem is the timing of Deasy’s intervention. There’s uncertainty in all parties about how they will fare this summer. Fine Gael is no exception.
A year ago, it would have been tolerable for Deasy to ventilate his view on the leadership (though it still would have drawn criticism). Immediately after the election, ditto (and would have happened anyway, if FG lost).
Strategically, now is not the time to plant any seeds of doubt, either inside or outside the party. What you can’t do is send out messages three or four months before an election that the party under Enda Kenny is a beaten docket.
Deasy may say that’s not what he was saying. That’s very true. But that’s the scent FG’s most vulpine opponents (FF and the PDs) are picking up. And knowing them, they are now sensing blood and wounded quarries and self-fulfilling prophecies.