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The Briefing

New Leader for a New Time…

by Dónal O’ Neill

31/05/2017

Many have credited Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny as the only politician with the will–power to lead Ireland through the financial crisis of 2008; he was however always going to struggle to make the transition from “safe pair of hands” to “dynamic new light.”

Many have credited Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny as the only politician with the will–power to lead Ireland through the financial crisis of 2008; he was however always going to struggle to make the transition from “safe pair of hands” to “dynamic new light.” 

As successful as Kenny was in maintaining economic stability at a time of uncertainty he was too badly stained by the unpopular decisions his Government made from 2011 onward to be seriously considered a long term leader. Tarnished by its attempt to introduce charges for the use of water, corruption allegations throughout the Irish police force and the overseeing of a 300% rise in homelessness Kenny’s leadership saw mass protests and the opposition party Fianna Fáil close ground in the polls.

Under mounting pressure Kenny stepped down on May 18th leaving a two horse leadership race between Housing Minister, Simon Coveney and Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar. Coveney has positioned himself as a man of ministerial experience keen to represent the historic values of Fine Gael. This is in contrast to Varadkar who is seen as representing the “new” Ireland of the 21st century: son of an Indian father, he would be the first openly gay Taoiseach Ireland has ever had and is likely to appeal heavily to younger voters.  It is still unclear however whether his openly liberal views, pro–business and pro–Dublin platform will appeal to the broader electorate, many of whom are still feeling the effects of the Irish economic collapse of 2008.

The leadership contest will be decided by an electoral college on Friday: split three ways between the parliamentary party (TDs, senators and MEPs) councillors, and rank and file members. The parliamentary party holds the whip hand with 65% of the voting strength and given that they have already declared for Varadkar by a majority of almost 2:1 it is heavily predicted, that come Friday, Leo Varadkar will be the next leader of Fine Gael. Regardless of who is selected, challenges will be plentiful for the new leader with huge changes fast approaching the country. Britain’s decision to exit the European Union is predicted by some to knock 4% off Irish economic growth within the next 10 years with the majority of that impact due to hit in the immediate few years following Britain’s departure in Spring 2019. With €4.1 Billion of food and drink exports going to the UK and 41,000 jobs reliant on this sector, Varadkar has announced his desire for a monetary purse to, “support our businesses and farms in making the transition to the new post–Brexit trading environment” as well as confirming his support for a Free Trade Agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom “to protect trade, our enterprises and agriculture.”

The first hurdle however that either leader will face is to be appointed as Ireland’s next Taoiseach. Though Fianna Fáil gave approval for Enda Kenny to form a minority government in 2016, given that a swing of only 1.5% separates the two traditional parties there will be a temptation for Fianna Fáil to withdraw their support for any new Fine Gael leader and force a general election later this year. With these things still in the melting pot we do indeed face a new dawn in Irish politics: which leader will carry the electoral torch into that dawn is still yet to be decided… June 2nd will be an important first step to answering that question.