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
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-