The contest in FG is not urban or rural as Elaine Byrne suggested but between the politics of “what” and “how” as compared with the politics of “who, and where and when”. There is a not inconsiderable number in Irish politics across the party divide for whom the intoning of the party name is the answer to all questions. This is great stuff at the time of an Ard Fheis when rallying the troops but holds less water when faced with more practical problems as we are now.
Enda has rebuilt an organisation that was eager to listen, desperate for salvation, while the general public were not as eager to listen to him. Those abilities and talents which allowed him to achieve this task of re-equipping Fine Gael and to be the best suited person to undertake this task are not the same as the abilities required to get across and convert people who were not so inclined towards the party or who have never thought of voting for it.
And at the time he started, Enda Kenny and the party recognised this and the counter argument to weakness in his approach was that in Irish politics we do not elect an all powerful president, a singular saviour, but we elect a parliament from which our executive will be drawn and this government will be chosen by the individual who commands a majority in that chamber. The value of the Fine Gael approach over the last 8 years was that it emphasised the team: that Fine Gael had solid competent people in the right place. The party was not selling a mere individual but an entire roster. Enda was to be player manager, picking the team beforehand and urging them on new heights on the pitch. He did not need to be the best player in the most important position.
Thus if the public might not be convinced that Enda Kenny knew all when it came to matters economic he had Richard Bruton by his side to reassure them on that. This approach was a harder sell in 2007 than it is now when the panel the leader had to draw from was more threadbare than any Fine Gael leader had been faced with up to that point. Yet the party almost did it if some of the dice had fallen right. Had highly anticipated gains by the other partners in the new Rainbow come through if Dominic Hannigan prevailed, or Dan Boyle held his seat or the Greens made their much vaunted breakthrough in Galway West how differ it might all have been. That time is passed, that particular race is run.
Fact is that Enda was also selected by the party to out-Bertie Bertie and the time for Bertie has passed. Bertie was the ultimate leader of the easy times, faced with a choice between two hard options he would and could pick both. Glad handling and the large scale superficial campaign of recent elections has been replaced by the more nuanced, even tedious policy discussion required to convey a party’s reading of the intricacy of NAMA, achieving national economic recovery in varied forms, dealing with the impressions of the bond markets as we borrow extensively and more before breakfast.
It is this change in political reality that more than anything else necessitates a change in approach and hence in leader. When Enda Kenny suggested at the recent national conference that despite his hailing of the work of Richard Bruton the day before that having him as Minister for Finance was not a deal breaker in any arrangement with Labour it signalled to many in the party and beyond that the FG approach to the restoration of the economy could be easily sidelined to that of Labour. Labour would hold the key ministry of finance from which all resources flow. If that were the case then the public too felt why vote for the middle man if he was not the one who would set the economic course of the country.
The little defence that this is the wrong time admits that this is the right thing to do but just not now. Now that the knife is unsheathed this defence makes no sense at all. The big defence advanced to date that we should look at what Enda has done as a sign of what he can and will do does not hold water over distance. Enda rebuilt an organisation but surely it does not rebuilding in the same way all over again? Enda did the hard yards but the coach who gets the players through the winter of running up sand dunes to build up their endurance is not the same one to work on their skills in spring. This is not about the past any more, the public have blamed FF for the mistakes we must now provide solutions.
More than anything I would characterise those who are most supportive of Enda to be moreover those for whom the fact of Fine Gael not being Fianna Fail is a bigger selling point to their core voters that the hard facts and policies of what Fine Gael itself stands for and is currently selling. Those ranged in opposition to Enda now are, in my view, those who are more interested convincing the public of what exactly the goals of Fine Gael are and how precisely it will achieve its aims rather that pointing out that Fine Gael are not Fianna Fail. This is where the divide is between those for whom it is more important what we will choose to do and how we do it than the mere fact that it is a Fine Gael minister who pulls the lever. The decision is more important that the person who makes it. Not that the person is irrelevant but less important. The time to merely aim to be not-FF is long past, the time to be Fine Gael has come.