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Ninth departure throws up stark questions for Fine Gael

Nine Fine Gael TDs have now announced that they are standing down at the next general election, and it must have party headquarters wondering.

The latest in a slew of departing deputies is Paul Kehoe – TD for Wexford since 2002 – and a man with a decade’s experience at Cabinet.

The former government chief whip and defence minister told his local party organisation last night: “This has been a very difficult decision to make, but I feel that now is the right time for me and my family.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in a statement that Kehoe is “… a man not to be under-estimated, is a good judge of character and understands how politics is done.”

Kehoe certainly showed that inner steel when he backed Enda Kenny to the hilt during the failed Richard Bruton heave of 2010, and then acted as one of the taoiseach’s enforcers when Fine Gael went into government a few months later.

His departure now throws-up some stark questions for the party.

The most immediate are: Who will stand in the reduced Wexford constituency in the General Election? And who will be the candidate in the new oddly named constituency of Wicklow-Wexford?

Speculation had suggested Deputy Kehoe would plump for Wicklow-Wexford, but now he is off the pitch completely.

In the 2020 General Election, Fine Gael fielded two Ministers of State in the Wexford constituency: Paul Kehoe was successful, while his running mate Michael D’Arcy lost out to the former Fine Gael candidate turned Independent, Verona Murphy.

Now the party’s fortunes will lie with the ability of its councillors to put in big performances in both Wexford and Wicklow-Wexford.

That dilemma is replicated across eight other constituencies due to the departures.

They include: Richard Bruton in Dublin Bay North, Fergus O’Dowd in Louth, Brendan Griffin in Kerry, Charlie Flanagan in Laois-Offaly, Joe McHugh in Donegal, Michael Creed in Cork North West, David Stanton in Cork East, and John Paul Phelan in Carlow-Kilkenny.

And that’s not including former Dublin Bay South TD Eoghan Murphy who called time on his parliamentary career in April 2021.

Leo Varadkar, is bullish when asked if he has any concerns about his depleted ranks.

He steadfastly maintains that his party prides itself on its ability to regenerate and, in the past, has pointed to Cllr James Geoghegan as good example – contending he’s highly likely to win back a seat for Fine Gael in Eoghan Murphy’s old stomping ground.

The Fine Gael leader has dismissed any question that his party will struggle to identify similar candidates to carry the standard into electoral battle.

Time will tell, but it’s certainly going to be a challenge.

And party strategists won’t need reminding that Fine Gael lost 12 seats in the 2020 General Election, and were left with just 35 – behind both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

There’s also widespread speculation that the departures are not going to end with Paul Kehoe’s announcement last night.

Last Christmas, RTÉ Political Correspondent Mícheál Lehane asked some deputies, who’d already announced they were bowing out at the next general election, what piece of music would be an apt soundtrack to mark their time in politics.

Richard Bruton went for The Gambler by Kenny Rogers, citing the lyric: “You got to know when to hold them. Know when to fold them. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.”

Fine Gael’s headquarters must be wondering just how many of its remaining TDs are running that very series of questions through their minds as the general election inches ever closer.

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