Will it be Leo — or end­less Enda?

The Taoiseach wants to stay on as leader through tough Brexit talks in the new era of Trump. But his party may have other plans in 2017, writes KIM BIELENBERG

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - CONTENTS -

You can imag­ine the scene in the White House on St Pa­trick’s Day, 2017. Enda Kenny stands grin­ning gorm­lessly for the cam­era in his green tie as he presents a bowl of sham­rock to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

The en­counter may be some­what awk­ward at the start as these two strangers meet up for the first time, and it will take all of Fion­nu­ala Kenny’s charm to jolly things along.

Per­haps harpists and “come al­lye” dancers of the type that greeted Don­ald on his ar­rival in Ire­land in 2014 will have to be drafted in to keep the Pres­i­dent sweet for the St Pa­trick’s Day knees-up.

When Enda called Don­ald “racist and dan­ger­ous” ear­lier this year, he hardly imag­ined that the out­sider Trump would be in­au­gu­rated as Pres­i­dent on Jan­uary 20 — and the pair would have to meet for the an­nual bout of pad­dy­whack­ery.

The sheer un­pre­dictabil­ity of Trump is likely to be a cen­tral theme in 2017, and will leave diplo­mats scratch­ing their heads, not only in Ire­land but across the world.

Of course, there is no ab­so­lute guar­an­tee that the great sur­vivor Enda will last un­til St Pa­trick’s Day at all.

The present hotch­potch of a Fine Gael coali­tion is in­her­ently un­sta­ble, and there are more banana skins in the path of the Taoiseach than in the mon­key en­clo­sure at Dublin Zoo.

There could be rows about wa­ter charges, the hous­ing cri­sis, the Ap­ple tax con­tro­versy, and the sort of un­ex­pected even­tu­al­i­ties that trip up gov­ern­ments when they are al­ready tot­ter­ing.

The sort of di­rect ac­tion over home­less­ness that saw the oc­cu­pa­tion of Apollo House be­fore Christ­mas is un­likely to be an iso­lated in­ci­dent; and we can ex­pect more oc­cu­pa­tions and greater mil­i­tancy on hous­ing next year.

With a mot­ley and volatile crew of mav­er­ick in­de­pen­dents to rely on for sup­port in the Dáil — from Trans­port Min­is­ter Shane Ross to Min­is­ter of State for Train­ing and Skills John Hal­li­gan — the Gov­ern­ment could col­lapse at any time. Or, if the Gov­ern­ment’s pop­u­lar­ity ap­pears to be wan­ing, there could be a Fine Gael heave to push Enda out.

Ac­cord­ing to the book­ies, if Enda Kenny slips up or steps down, Leo Varad­kar is the odds-on favourite to take over. He has been press­ing the flesh be­hind the scenes among Fine Gael back­benchers in a bid to en­sure that he fin­ishes top in any poll.

And if it is Leo rather than Enda who flies into Wash­ing­ton for the an­nual sham­rock shenani­gans in the White House, the at­mos­phere could be even more awk­ward.

Back in June, Varad­kar was not shy about blast­ing Trump in pub­lic and he stuck the boot in with even more gusto than Enda

“I don’t think there can be any doubt that many of the speeches he has made were racist and showed a very misog­y­nis­tic at­ti­tude to women,” said Leo.

Ques­tions about the fu­ture of the Taoiseach will be con­stantly asked dur­ing the com­ing months un­til the is­sue is fi­nally re­solved.

In re­cent weeks, Enda has in­di­cated that he wishes to stay on as Taoiseach un­til the visit of Pope Fran­cis to Ire­land in Au­gust 2018.

With the Pope’s bless­ing, could this re­ally be the era of end­less Enda?

The Taoiseach’s loyal sup­port­ers will have been re­as­sured by his in­creased pop­u­lar­ity rat­ing in the most re­cent Ip­sos-MRBI sur­vey. At 36pc, it is his high­est rank­ing for some time.

Pri­vately, se­nior fig­ures in Fine Gael sug­gest that Kenny’s hopes to stay on un­til a pa­pal visit in 2018 are highly op­ti­mistic and even pre­sump­tu­ous.

There is some ex­pec­ta­tion in the party that he will have quit by next sum­mer and al­low bed­ding-in time for a suc­ces­sor be­fore an­other elec­tion, which could hap­pen at any time.

But if his pa­pal pledge is any­thing to go by, Enda may be a more stub­born leader to re­move than many had bar­gained for.

The broad­caster and for­mer Fine Gael cab­i­net min­is­ter Ivan Yates has pre­dicted that he will only be car­ried out of of­fice in a box, and in po­lit­i­cal terms, he may well be right.

His pos­si­ble suc­ces­sors will be des­per­ately hop­ing that he goes of his own vo­li­tion, be­cause any move to un­seat the Taoiseach would be messy, and have no guar­an­tee of suc­cess. The at­tempted Fine Gael putsch in 2010, when Richard Bruton tried to re­place him, showed that Kenny had much sharper po­lit­i­cal skills than some of his ri­vals. And any would-be Fine Gael leader would want to avoid a rep­e­ti­tion of that fi­asco.

Apart from Varad­kar, the lead­ing can­di­date to take Enda’s job is Si­mon Coveney. He won plau­dits from party back­benchers for fac­ing down Fianna Fáil and push­ing through mea­sures to con­trol rents, but does he have the guile to be a leader? Though well-in­ten­tioned, at times he seems like a starry-eyed in­no­cent abroad.

Jus­tice Min­is­ter and Tá­naiste Frances Fitzger­ald, Health Mi­nis-

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