by Frank Schnittger
Thu Feb 23rd, 2017 at 04:45:54 PM EST
Enda Kenny, one of the EU's longest serving Prime Ministers, is set to resign in the aftermath of his St. Patrick's day visit to the US and the UK's formal declaration of Brexit under Article 50 next month. Opposition to his leadership of Fine Gael, the largest party and incumbent Government, has been growing since their disastrous campaign and results in the General Election last year. He is perhaps best known for his forthright condemnation of the Vatican in the aftermath of the child sexual abuse scandals which have come to light in recent years: Wiki
On 20 July , Kenny condemned the Vatican[ for its role in the scandal, stating that the Church's role in obstructing the investigation was a serious infringement upon the sovereignty of Ireland and that the scandal revealed "the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day". He added that "the historic relationship between church and state in Ireland could not be the same again".
This leadership move comes despite the fact that the Irish economy has largely recovered from the catastrophic collapse suffered in the wake of the financial crisis and banking debacle presided over by the previous Fianna Fail led regime. Not many leaders in European politics would be in terminal decline with an economy having recovered from 15% to 7% unemployment, with emigration reversed, public sector deficits largely eliminated, and with incomes gradually on the rise again.
But Kenny is both the author and victim of the inequality of that recovery, which has benefited mainly the older, wealthier, and more Dublin based sections of the population to the exclusion of the younger, more disadvantaged and rural demographics. Last years' Fine Gael election slogan "Keep the Recovery Going", devised by UK Tory political strategists, touched a raw nerve: Many people hadn't felt much of a recovery in their personal lives at all, and resented the crowing of the political establishment that all was now well.
The result was that Fine Gael obtained only 25% of the national vote and was forced to form the smallest minority Government in the history of the Irish State with a handful of independents and the abstention of Fianna Fail, their largest rivals, who refused to enter into coalition with them. Now Fianna Fail are riding high in the polls again, proving that the political memory of the electorate is very short term indeed, and making Fine Gael Ministers and back-benchers extremely nervous. Kenny, at 65, has become a political liability, and must now pay the ultimate political price.
However his political decline is largely about personalities and branding, not about policies and ideology. His rivals within Fine Gael share his largely conservative economic views and mildly reformist social policies. There is a general recognition that Brexit and Trump represent twin crises for the Irish economy and low corporate tax economic policy model, but no determination to move towards any other model. Yes, a new industrial policy has been promised together with a more ambitious public investment plan, but there is no way that Fine Gael, under any possible new leader, will depart radically form the economic model which has enabled Ireland to become one of the more prosperous members of the European Union.
The two main leadership contenders post Kenny are Simon Coveney and Leo Varadker. Coveney's father was also a Fine Gael Minister and he has the support of much of the party establishment. As a former Minister for Agriculture and based in Cork, he also has the support of much of the party's rural base. As the Current Minister for Housing and Local Government he has just announced a major plan to tackle the huge public and private housing deficit in the country.
Leo Varadker is a somewhat more unusual figure for Irish politics. He has an Indian father, was educated in a protestant School, and is a qualified doctor. He came out as gay some years ago and, if anything, has gained in national profile since. He has managed to cultivate a media friendly image as being somewhat outspoken and not in the usual mould of the "whatever you say, say nothing" Irish politician. His appeal would go some way beyond the confines of the Fine Gael faithful, but it is they he must convince in order to win the leadership.
The election is expected to be triggered shortly after Kenny arrives back from Washington for the traditional Patrick's day visit to the White House. For the first time in Irish politics, the electoral college will be made up of not just the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party (including MEPs), but of local Councillors (10%) and party members (25%) as well. This ensures that the election won't be decided just in the proverbial "smoked filled back-rooms" of the party and that candidates will have to make their case at hustings throughout the country.
In theory this should force candidates to elaborate their policies on dealing with Trump and Brexit, on broadening the base of the Irish economy beyond US sourced FDI, and how they propose to represent Ireland's interests in the EU when their major ally there departs. Northern Ireland should also become a key factor in the debate, with candidates expected to elaborate on how they propose to prevent a re-emergence of a hard border when the UK leaves the EU, Single Market and Custom's Union. As yet, I see no sign that any are prepared to embrace my proposed solution that Ireland should campaign for N. Ireland to remain within the EU.
Other possible contenders for the leadership include Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minster) Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Justice and Equality, and Minister for Health Simon Harris, who is just 30 years of age but seen as a rising star within the party. His candidature would emphasise the generational shift implicit in this election, as most of the older and more experienced Ministers like Michael Noonan (Finance), Charlie Flanagan (Foreign Affairs) and Richard Bruton (Education), won't be standing. All candidates are likely to support a referendum on the abolition of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits abortion, as it will be a key test of their liberal credentials.
In one respect, the timing of Kenny's departure is unfortunate. As one of the EU's longest standing prime ministers, he has built up good relationships and some respect with his peers on the European Council. As Ireland is most dramatically impacted by Brexit, we need to have a strong input into the Brexit negotiations. Our cause will not be helped by having a relative neophyte in the role.
However it has long been my view that the Brexit negotiations will ultimately be driven by German and French interests, and they are unlikely to take much account of Irish concerns regardless of who occupies the Taoiseach's role. Having a younger and more energetic Prime Minister may be an advantage in the long slog that the Brexit and any subsequent trade negotiations are likely to engender. Ireland needs a fresh start, but the jury is out as to whether any Fine Gael Leader can provide it.