The 26 County Taoiseach Enda Kenny is struggling to retain the leadership of his Fine Gael party after his ponderous and contradictory responses to allegations of a smear campaign against a Garda police whistleblower.
Speculation has mounted that Mr Kenny’s days at the helm of his fragile and minority coalition government are numbered, with many within his own party calling for him to step down within weeks.
Speaking at a press conference this week he refused to give a date for his departure, insisting it was his “responsibility as leader of the country to continue in a very challenging time”, pointing to the fallout from Brexit.
One of those tipped to replace him, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar, described Mr Kenny’s leadership as “fabulous” but that “he will know when the right time is for himself and the party and the country to step aside”.
The move against the Taoiseach was sparked when he was forced to correct his own responses over what he knew and when about a reported smear campaign against Sergeant Maurice McCabe. The police whistleblower and his family were allegedly targeted in a campaign orchestrated by the chiefs of police, social services, journalists and government ministers.
The leadership issue was again raised at a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday evening, just as Kenny faced a motion of no confidence in his government.
The no confidence vote was defeated thanks to the support of Fianna Fail, the second largest conservative party in the Dublin parliament, which last year agreed to sustain the minority government formed by Fine Gael and a group of independents.
Fianna Fail voted to prop up Fine Gael by abstaining on the confidence vote, despite harsh criticism of the government by senior FF figures such as health spokesperson Billy Kelleher, who described the government as “incoherent and shambolic”.
Focus has now switched back to Fine Gael and whether Mr Kenny will finally set a date for his resignation. It is rumoured that some colleagues want to give him space to attend the traditional St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the White House, and allow him to formally present the 26 County response to the triggering of Brexit, which is due by the end of March, before stepping down.
However, a ‘heave’ may also take place during a parliamentary party meeting as early as next week. Several key Ministers are reportedly canvassing members for support to allow him only a ‘grace period’ before he has to quit.
Fine Gael TD for Dublin Fingal Alan Farrell said on Friday he no longer has confidence in Kenny to lead his party, and described his position as “untenable”.
Responding to what is just the latest in a series of such challenges to his leadership, the Taoiseach indicated he would not stand aside and encouraged Fine Gael members instead to ‘focus on their jobs’.
“We have lots of work for our party to engage themselves in, ministerial portfolios and programmes for Government to implement. That is what we should be about,” he said.
But fewer and fewer believe that Kenny can hold on. His admission in the Dublin parliament this week that he did not in fact have a conversation he claimed to have had with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone over the McCabe affair was a humiliating climbdown. It has also implicated him in the alleged cover-up of the smear scandal.
A public inquiry was finally announced this week amid continuing uproar following two botched and mealy-mouthed apologies for the false allegations of sexual abuse involving the McCabe family.
The terms of reference of the inquiry will allow an investigation into Ireland’s culture of policing, the concerted undermining of whistleblowers, and the alleged collusion of state agencies, such as the Tusla child protection agency and the Ministry of Justice.
Mr Kenny is also expected to face questions at the tribunal after his failure to deal with the scandal in 2014, when he strongly supported the police chief and justice minister. There are also questions over why failed to give a complete account of when he learned of the false abuse allegations and his insistence that he knew nothing of a broader smear campaign.
“The latest scandal to engulf the government results from Fine Gael’s perpetual disgraceful handling of the campaign of vilification against Maurice McCabe and other Garda whistleblowers,” said Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, as he moved the no-confidence motion in the Dublin parliament.
During the debate, there were heated exchanges between Mr Kenny and Mr Adams. At one point, Mr Kenny called Mr Adams an “absolute hypocrite” and sought to attack him over his handling of abuse allegations against his brother and former IRA members, and about the IRA generally.
But it was a desperate attempt to respond to the trenchant criticism delivered by Mr Adams.
“Between them Fine Gael, and particularly Fianna Fail, have been responsible for a culture of insiderism, strokes, cronyism, corruption, graft, cute-hoorism, brown envelopes, digouts and whatever you’re having yourself,” he said.
He accused Mr Kenny was leading a government “that is without purpose and devoid of direction” and that Fianna Fail had propped up a government that has delivered nothing “except perpetual crisis”.
“Last year they gave it another name - ‘new politics’, but this ‘new politics’ represents the type of politics that is prepared to accept an alleged criminal conspiracy by senior Gardai to destroy the character of a decent man doing his duty and expects the government that has allowed this to happen to remain in office.”
He said Maurice McCabe was a man “who deserves the thanks of the people of this State”. He described him as a “man of incredible strength” and said that he, his wife Lorraine and his family deserved support and solidarity.
“Their resilience and commitment to each other has been extraordinary,” he added. “Maurice McCabe’s appalling treatment illustrates the absolute need for a culture of openness, transparency and accountability within our policing and justice systems and our political system.
“Whistleblowers - brave citizens - have been the target of systematic campaigns of abuse and harassment from within An Garda Siochana.
“In no other modern State would such actions be tolerated. Yet, under the watch of two parties that have dominated politics here since partition this is the state we are in.”