Helen McEntee

Helen McEntee

THE carefully constructed Fine Gael leadership campaign of Helen McEntee was given what appeared to be the kiss of death with her recent walk on the wild side of Dublin’s mean streets. Evidence of this was the very loud silence from ministers and even back bench TDs, with none of them – bar Alan Farrell who enjoys the rather meaningless title of FG’s Dáil spokesperson on justice – rushing to the microphone to defend her.

The reason for this abandonment of the justice minister is not simply her risible tour of the inner city with senior gardaí but the absence of any real statement other than ‘all’s well with the capital city’ – a laughable response to the situation. For the party of law‘n’order this was unacceptable and suddenly McEntee’s liberal legislative agenda became a focal point for the media and, worse, her own party colleagues.

However, as Goldhawk has argued for some time, McEntee’s leadership campaign was already foundering. Any leadership campaign must have a good PR strategy, and handlers to shape and implement that strategy, and there is little doubt but that McEntee was gifted such a team. Leo Varadkar’s chief of staff, Brian Murphy, who worked with McEntee when she worked out of the Taoiseach’s office as junior minister responsible for Europe, ensured that she got highly capable handlers.

These are headed by Paddy Cluskey, formerly Richard Bruton’s handler, and Fiach Kelly, ex-deputy political editor of the Irish Times. As well, Helen’s husband, Paul Hickey, is a committed FG member and along with the McEntee clan acts as back-up for Helen. Hickey also happens to be a friend of FG party general secretary John Carroll, who himself is close to Vlad.

Both Cluskey and Kelly are regarded as very good at what they do and Fiach Kelly in particular has earned his boss priceless column inches and exposure in all media. But the raw truth is that, while McEntee is surrounded by supportive party functionaries and west wingers, she herself is not exactly cabinet material – never mind that of a future taoiseach.

Also, neither Cluskey nor Kelly are infallible and the usual trick of a well-organised photo shoot with a well-scripted Helen looking serene – which had always worked for her up until now – imploded as she sauntered down the street in designer gear flanked by senior gardaí and a nervous-looking Paschal Donohoe.

Most FG ministers and TDs with experience of McEntee regard her as a competent politician, but no more. While she is well-scripted and delivers statements crafted by her handlers that are usually beyond criticism, she herself is regarded at best as inscrutable and at worst an over-promoted politician.

That Helen McEntee has twice had to take periods of several months maternity leave from her department has not helped matters but it was the second such absence that did the damage. On the first occasion, the dependable, no-nonsense Heather Humphreys filled the gap and there was neither criticism nor surprised comment about any aspect of her interim stint as justice minister.

However, one wonders just why her patron, Vlad, selected Helen’s leadership rival, Simon Harris, to fill in for McEntee on her second period of maternity leave. Harris swept through the department like a hurricane and it was little wonder that Kelly recently had to mobilise the good offices of a willing Irish Times to answer the “sexist… ridiculous” claim that Harris had done more in a few months as justice minister than McEntee had done since 2020 (see The Phoenix 14/7/23).

Project Helen was in trouble before the inner-city violence became an issue as the comparison with workaholic Harris was becoming more obvious by the day to FG ministers and parliamentary party members. Increasingly, her professional PR presentations also jarred with her own political persona.

At the moment, Harris is the only credible leadership contender – a vacuum that will likely be filled soon enough.

Hickey - Dublin Airport Night