How a child's bravery touched Enda Kenny: 'These are tumours, and I'm going to die but I'm not afraid'
In a revealing interview with Sunday Independent's Brendan O'Connor, Enda Kenny reveals what drives him forward
The Taoiseach seems geed up. He is ready for the “Battle of Britain” as he is calling it.
He is coming from a Cabinet meeting and after we meet he will head for Brussels for the Brexit negotiations. And of course, he is in the middle of a historic General Election campaign which could see him become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected. But things don’t seem tense. As one handler admits, 26pc one week out from election day was not the plan. But the mood is upbeat. I get the impression they are all keen to project an air of fightback, of energy. But then, in the modern political world, who knows anymore what is real and what is carefully constructed drama and spin. As we chit chat while having pictures taken, the Taoiseach doesn’t seem bothered by the polls. He reminds me that he has been through many campaigns. Campaigns go up and down, he will tell me later, and polls come and go. I ask him if this campaign is getting a bit vicious — he had characterised it as a dogfight the day before. He says if anything it’s mild.
After the customary kidding around for the cameras, and a bit of messing and joking with the young team who man the engine room here at FG HQ, we head upstairs. He dismisses his handlers, takes off the jacket and there follows what I certainly found to be a surprising conversation. I had been expecting to hear the usual key messages being driven home, an attempt, as it were, to scare the shit out of the voters. What happens instead is that Enda Kenny seems to attempt to repair the ‘Keep The Recovery Going’ message, to flesh it out, to soften it up. He stops short of admitting it’s the wrong message, but concedes it needs finessing.
The Taoiseach seemed in a thoughtful, philosophical mood, quite emotional at times. It was also a more relaxed version of the Taoiseach. The bucklepping and the constant movement, the mugging for the cameras and high fives were put aside. Indeed, he became very still as we sat alone in the room. He spoke slowly, deliberately. And he reflected on why one would want to be a politician, on the last five years, and of course, why he wants to be the Taoiseach for another five years. In one way he made very few references to the economy. Perhaps our conversation is best explained by the fact that when I asked him if the spin doctors had got the message wrong, that if it wasn’t just about the economy, he said to me that it’s up to politicians to put the humanity on that message.
And perhaps if there was a strategy here — and let’s face it, of course there was — then that was the purpose of our interview, to put some humanity in the message. I had asked to meet Enda the man, and had expressed a desire not to have a circular conversation with him about who he would or wouldn’t go into coalition with, and all the other endless circular conversations we’ve heard for the past few weeks. And so I got a man explaining why he does this and why he wants to keep doing it. If you take things at face value — and what else can you do? — I came away with an impression of a good man, of a moral man, a compassionate man, a humane man, a man who is uncomfortable with some of the decisions he has had to make, but who is pragmatic too about why he had to make those decisions.
At times you felt as if you were speaking to a really good priest. It was the side of Enda Kenny we see flashes of in his more reflective speeches, when he is expressing the grief or outrage of the nation, something he does very well. It is an Enda Kenny we maybe don’t see enough of. Despite the everyman image, this Taoiseach is, in many ways, unknowable. At times he gives the impression of being the very sociable loner he characterised his predecessor as.
As a boy, the Taoiseach rarely saw his father, Henry, an All Ireland winner and TD.
“We lived in a very small house out in the country,” he says. “But he was gone for the vast majority of my childhood and my brother’s and sister’s childhood, because it was a very different kind of politics then. . . They were gone, the TDs were gone all the time. Whether it was the Dáil or meetings, or council meetings, or whatever. So mothers raised the families in the vast majority of cases for years, and were the unpaid servants of the public in that sense. It really was a tough grind when I look back on it. It’s still a tough grind.”
But growing up in a political household, he says, is a process of assimilation. “It forms inside you, if you talk to the children of former deputies or politicians, they have an innate understanding of what it’s about.”
So despite not seeing his father for all those years, he would make the decision to follow his father into politics, and he would miss out too.
“We missed out,” he says of his family now, “in the sense of, if you like, very regular family days, to a great extent. These things are important. I remember talking to an MEP, who is not an MEP now. He served 20 years in the European Parliament, and you know he said to me one day when we were in London, ‘The one regret I’ll always have is that our children grew to adulthood and I never saw them, I never saw them’. And he said, ‘I’ll regret that completely to the day I die’.”
Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala were both cognisant of this danger: “Fionnuala understood politics innately,” he says. “Obviously she had been working with Mr Haughey as the Head of Government Information Services, and understood all that. So, for me, in understanding what that other MEP told me, in my own life, from the time that our children were so small, wherever I was, I made contact with them every evening. When they could talk to Daddy, they spoke to me. And the thing you learn about children is that they do not distinguish about distance. I could be in Achill or Alaska and if you’re talking to them, that’s all that matters.”
The couple were also careful about keeping their children out of the public eye. “Fionnuala gave up her job working with RTE afterwards when the children came along,” he says, “We have never put them upfront in the way that you might see in some cases. They’ve never been featured in magazines, or all that kind of stuff. They are very ordinary kids and they have their own lives and their own friends and all the rest of it. And I have to say that anytime we have ever been out for, whatever it might be, from McDonald’s onwards, people would always leave you alone. They like to see you’re there though, and they like to understand the concept that, here is a family, the head of whom is involved in the political system, but they are very ordinary people.”
We detour into family, partially I suspect, because family is on the Taoiseach’s mind. This is part of the humanity with which he wants to flesh out the recovery message. As he explains more about why he got into politics and the achievements he is most proud of in the last five years and his vision for Ireland in the future he will return again and again to the notion of family.
“Rather than just saying, like your economy is the be all and end all,” he says, “I go back to my three roots that I’ve often said about this being best country for business, the best to raise a family in, and the best to grow old in with a sense of dignity and respect.”
He fixes his gaze on me. “Let me tell you, man to man, I have no interest in the trappings of power. None at all.” And so he begins to explain why he is in politics. And first he says he wants to talk about freedom.
He tells me a story —the foundation of the message today will come in the form of storytelling — about a meeting he was at in the Digital Hub during the marriage equality referendum: “And five men came to me after that meeting, and I knew some of them, and some I didn’t. Important people, chief executives and so on. But the funny thing was that, [with one of them], the bottom lip was trembling and he said, ‘I’m a gay person. And I just want to say that I think that this is a brilliant opportunity for the people of the country to make a decision’. Now when it was all over Brendan, one of them came back to me and he said, ‘You will never understand what it is like to work out of the shadows, the sense of freedom, and what the people . . . have given me, is the excitement of being able to live a life in this country and be the same as everybody else’. That’s the point about this.”
Asking him why the election campaign hasn’t been more about achievements like this, about standing up to the Church, about the liberal agenda that you suspect was one the Taoiseach had to come around to, but one which he embraced, he replies simply that: “The economy allows all of these other issues to be addressed.” So the economy is fundamental, because it makes all the other good stuff possible.
He tells me another story about a 10-year-old boy with autism, non-verbal, with whom a teacher finally managed to make a connection through new technology. They asked the boy if he knew what was happening in the world. “And the answer that he gave with numbers and letters was ‘Bombing in Syria’. Like isn’t that the ‘why’ of politics? That you can provide the resource to have teachers like that train young people, make the connection, that their parents, who know them best of all, have not been able to do, because it requires a very specialist understanding. The joy of that family . . .” He seems genuinely moved by this. And it is moving. But I have to put it to him that every parent you meet with a child with disability has the same story. There are fewer and fewer services all the time.
“Five billion we have spent on the disability area,” he says. “But what you need to do is to be able to put more into it . . .”
So what is his vision for providing equality for people with disabilities, for this other last great civil rights battle? “Certainly what I would like to do is to let them all achieve their best potential. When I speak to the people outside the gates of Government Buildings, or outside Leinster House, what do they say to me? They say they want facilities put in place so they can live their own lives. And I support that. [If you can] say to a disabled person . . . ‘You know yourself that you can get these services’, and provide the money for them to do that, and they’re much happier and more contented people, you know — able to do their own thing…”
Which I take as an intention to continue to support the policy of getting people out of institutions and also provide them with the resources to access services themselves on an individualised basis, which, if true, is both enlightened and hopeful.
Similarly, he says that the issue of mental health is close to his heart. Again, he tells me a powerful story that clearly moved him. “I stood in a house down in the West with one of the people who lost his son through suicide. And it was perfectly normal situation. He had a girlfriend, was working, had a car. And one evening the father went off to bed and he left the young lad there in the kitchen watching the television. And [the young man] went out and got his computer and typed his letter and left it on the mother’s side of the bed. The father said to me afterwards, ‘For the rest of my life now I am going to ask myself, every day, “Did I miss something? Was there an indication I should have done something else?”’ And he said, ‘I will never find an answer to that question.’”
When I tackle him on specifics, like the fact that that young man would possibly have benefited from talking therapy and that that was probably not available to him when he needed it, he argues that perhaps there are too many agencies and charities dealing with the issue. And while he is careful to say that all of these do marvellous work, he says, “I often think, with respect to them Brendan, that when an incident happens in location X, that there is another surge of assistance and another group is set up. I think you can have a far more effective connection . . . you don’t need one everywhere. I think it’s important in the school system, in the education system, in the youth system.”
He moves onto another reason why he got involved in politics: “I’ll tell you something else, I met the Magdalene women in London. Few things made as much of an impact as these. It was like opening a reservoir. I sat upstairs in the Irish Embassy for three-and-a-half or four hours. I tried to get on the vein with them and what they had to say, their accounts, their experiences. And when it was all over and we made a formal apology on behalf of the State, it was the look in their eyes that would say to you, ‘these are the reasons why you should be in politics’, and not have people confined for 60 years to say, ‘My country didn’t recognise me, didn’t want me, banished me. And now they’ve come back and said, “We’re sorry, this should never have happened, and as an aside to that here is a measure of some recompense for what happened”’. But it was the essence of Irishness in a way, after all those years these women were prepared to say, ‘We now feel full citizens again’.”
He goes onto talk in a similar vein about meeting the survivors of and the relatives of victims of the Kingsmill massacre. Again, you would have to be cynical to say that meeting these people didn’t clearly have an effect on him. For him, he says, it’s about “tapping into where their soul is, if you like” and saying, “I live in this country; this is my problem”.
And while Enda Kenny is often ribbed about his folksy stories of the people he meets, you begin to suspect in talking to him that the reason he tells these stories is because this is what politics is all about for him. The process, for him, begins with listening, and he seems to think a lot about these encounters afterwards, and they are what informs his politics.
He wants to talk about bravery now.
“People, parents I know, said a little girl would like to visit Government Buildings. She has an interest in politics, 10 or 11, I said fine. We brought the little girl into Government Buildings and showed her around the office and sat her in the Taoiseach’s chair and took her picture. And I said, ‘Now, do you like that, now?’. And she said, ‘This is great, I’m not afraid you know’. And I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ And she said, ‘Do you see these things here in my leg? These are tumours and I’m going to die’. And she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they could find a cure for this’. So when I was out in [pharmaceutical research company] APC the other day, in Cherrywood, this came in my head, because I was talking to a young researcher there, who was doing research on a billion-dollar project, which would impact on the lives of hundreds of millions if it comes to a successful conclusion. The parents had sent me a mourning card afterwards, and I just thought that, there was a little girl who was at the start of her life, and brave you know. It’s like, can somebody find out about, what causes this, why bloods are down or whatever else? And, see, in the mad rush of politics, I often think about things like that.”
And this is the humanity that for him fleshes out the bones of the recovery message. He flips into business mode. “So, the economy is great, Brexit, exit the Troika, bye bye AJ. You know, the promissory note, exit without conditions, all the discussions that took place. The rows at European Council meetings, ‘You’ll get no concession here . . . increase your proper tax rate . . . you won’t get an interest rate reduction’. And then it all changes and Sarko says, ‘You’re now European champion.’ It means nothing to me, but what it does mean is that if you’re back on a road to recovery, the challenge Brendan, is to bring the recovery home.”
And does he accept now that people might have not fully appreciated the message about keeping the recovery going, because a lot of people aren’t feeling the recovery?
“I admit that, of course and I understand that.”
Does he think the spin doctors got the message wrong?
“I think the message is very . . . the politicians have got to humanise this. You need warmer language around it.”
I wonder if politicians are being over-handled now. There have been reports that Kenny is not getting to talk to voters on this campaign, that it’s all set-pieces in business premises. He doesn’t agree, and he will make a point after, in front of his handlers, of telling me how he always escapes them, and frustrates their attempts to keep him moving. But he does concede that, “long before spin doctors were ever around in our part of the country, God, you were working from fair days, to church-gate meetings, to school meetings, and everything else. All the time. Sure politics is about meeting people. And if you follow it through and you meet 100 people, that’s your vox pop if you want.”
When asked what kinds of issues people are bringing up in these vox pops, he is pragmatic. Everyone has their shopping list of things they want, he says, but it’s not all possible. “At the end of the day, we sit around the table and say ‘Okay, here’s the extent of what you’ve got, you can’t build onto your house every month and you can’t change the car every week’ and all the rest of it. You know . . . plough your field, sow your crop, you’ve all the hard work done, but you’ve got to let it grow.’”
He is enthusiastic about his vision for the Ireland he’d like to leave behind him in another five years, if he is re-elected.
“I’ve often said it, that it is seen to be a place of energy, of excitement, of enthusiasm. That there’s something about Ireland. That we brought them home. That actually nothing can stop us as people, when Ireland applies itself. Then — what’s the problem? . . . We’ve built the cities in the world, the freeways, the tunnels, the coal mines, the docks, everything else. Come home and sort out our own problems.
“Now we’ve moved to a point, point B or C or wherever you want, in the right direction to finish the job. So here is your country, the place where the young fella, whom I opened a place for here in Dublin . . . I said, ‘Why did you come here from America to open your business?’. He said, ‘I wanted to come to a cosmopolitan city, I’m blown away by what I see, walking in the door, in terms of talent and quality’. So raise the bar and build double ... changing the frontiers, that’s what I see around the country... And I see the confidence of Irish businesses today. Break out of Tipperary, break out of Monaghan, be like Combilift and export to Australia and export to Jordan. Or sell your forklifts to the Saudi Arabians or whatever. This is confidence, this is Ireland.”
Then we are back to family.
“The second thing is, that we’re a very pro-family country and give them the best opportunity to raise their children in the best way. That’s why we can say in politics that for junior and senior infants we have reduced the pupil-teacher ratio to 18-1, because all the statistics and all the evidence and all the people who say they know these things will say, that is where you’re going to make the most impression on young minds as they start the process…”
And equally, he wants to see people looked after at the other end of their lives: “The third point is to demonstrate that actually we do mean it when we talk about looking after the elderly in their senior years. Now respectability in this country was a bad word. Because people did things who were in respected professions that let down the entire nation, and we’re washing away their sins yet. So dignity is [a word] that I prefer.
“And actually, it came to me the other day again, an 87-year-old who said to me, when I was leaving an old people’s home, she said, ‘Look, I was always one of ye. I worked 57 years in England. Raised seven children. And all we want at the end of the night is to be looked after’. And when you see them incontinent, in their bed, being turned over, being washed, changed, their hair done, and they lie there in the bed and they’re perfectly happy. They’re waiting their turn. Poised with a sense of dignity.
“I don’t like to see people on trolleys in hospitals, I don’t like to see old people sitting in chairs for hours. This is about mankind.”
So why hasn’t he managed to fix that? Why is health still a basket case?
“I think it’s not such a basket case,” he says. “There are hundreds of thousands who will have experienced it of course, but the blockages are just the ones that come to light. And that means you have to have far more effective management and, of course, you have to have resources.”
But he had five years to fix that management.
“We were completely broke when we went in... ” he counters.
But in a way isn’t it less management you need in Health? “Well certainly more effective management, I would agree with you there, but like you couldn’t get the money anywhere, you were subject to the Troika, that’s what you were going to get…”
Do they have a radical plan to fix Health now?
He enumerates The Healthy Ireland plan, Universal Health Care and home help packages, to keep people in their homes as long as is humanly possibly.
In terms of difficult decisions that he had to make, he says that the debacle over the discretionary medical cards was “the most hurtful”.
“Sure my God, some of the cases that came to light . . . would bring tears to anybody’s eyes,” he says.
So why did they let it go on so long then?
“Well, one thing was that the whole process of centralising these things meant that it all became computer driven, and the computer doesn’t distinguish between one Brendan O’Connor and another. So if I could go back into that ... the local knowledge — ‘Yes, I know that family, I know this particular case’, but a sense of humanity and flexibility into it. And that is why, when this thing begins to strengthen up, that Leo Varadkar can say, ‘Well, I’m going to give those children, who have domiciliary care allowance, a full medical card, all 10,000 of them.’”
Is that his biggest regret? “I won’t lie you know, people have to live with that inside them. The stress and the pressure on the families, that’s not the kind of country we should be. That’s not the kind of country that I want to see, and I want to change that. And where there is ineffective management or a wastage of money, you have to direct that to where it is needed most.”
He says he has “great faith” that he can still form a government with Labour, that people will look at their choice starkly three or four days out, around now. And his message is: “So here is the choice . . . you know where we are, we know where we can be. There is the frontier, there is the horizon up ahead. Here is from our point of view a well-constructed, well-costed package, that’s the least expensive of all the parties as far as I can figure out, that is in the interest of the people. So make your choice, time to make your mind up.”
Equally, he says that, “my experience would say to me, never presume to have an answer to what the people are actually going to do . . . this is the brilliant thing about a democracy, the people rule.”
I say to him that presumably in the national interest, he will do what is necessary to put together a stable government, after the people have spoken.
He talks darkly about countries like Spain, concluding, “So I am very clear in my mind, that I say to the people, I have always trusted the people’s decision and I believe that the kind of Ireland that I want to see can be delivered by the government that is in situ. It’s the people’s choice and I’m not going beyond that. And for me the return of Fine Gael and Labour … there is a programme there that will change this country and lock it on for the better.”
I mention to him that Stephen Donnelly impressed a lot of people at the Leader’s Debate last Monday.
“Well, I’ve known Stephen for quite a while,” he says, “and he is an impressive speaker. But, like, the Social Democrats are comprised of three people. Fair enough, they’ve got their list. None of it is costed, it’s aspirational and to make it become a reality is a very different prospect.”
Most men Enda Kenny’s age are moving towards retirement and the golf course. But it seems the Taoiseach has no appetite to stop now. “No, I’ll tell you, and the reason is, I know how far and where we can go. When you’re given the mandate, and the opportunity, and the privilege, of walking down the steps of the Dail to become the Taoiseach. Like, the place was a basket case, and all the economists said, ‘You’ll default, you’ll need a second bailout, you’ll never create 100,000 jobs, this country is going to be down there for the next 15 years’. But back to my point: Sort it out, don’t be afraid of it. Seamus Heaney: ‘Noli timere’ — do not be afraid of it. Go and make the decisions. You know, politics is about people, government is about making decisions and elections are about choices. So I know, I know the tension that’s in you before you go to a Cabinet meeting, with half a dozen lousy decisions to be made, difficult choices to be made, difficult decisions. And go and do it. It’s never easy.”
So ultimately why is Enda Kenny still in politics?
Perhaps it is summed up in something he said earlier: “I just think that the older you get, the more you appreciate the responsibility of politics is to build the country, build the society, give them the opportunity to make their minds up.
“And I think, whether it’s music, literature, sport, art, whatever you want, there’s nobody who can stop us if we only apply ourselves, with the singular objective of being the best in the world. And if I can make a mark on that, through the political system, then you know you’re happy, you’re very happy to do that.
“And it is actually, it’s in the social world, the personal worlds of our Irishness that you prefer to make the mark. People expect you to do the business with the economy, they expect you to be fighting about agriculture, business and roads and all that. Of course. But bring it in here, bring it in here,” he puts his hand on his chest.
“Does anybody listen to me out there? Is anybody prepared to do something about it?
“Well here,” he says, pointing to himself, “ is one.”