Friday 21 October 2016

The enigma: in search of the real Enda

An agnostic in the world of politics and left cold by its institutional eejitry, Chief Sports Writer Vincent Hogan this week swapped the world of the stadium to go in search of a man who wants the nation's love

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Hands on: Kenny addresses the crowd in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, this week. Photo: Andrew Downes.
Hands on: Kenny addresses the crowd in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, this week. Photo: Andrew Downes.
Round-table talks: Vincent Hogan and Enda Kenny
An impromptu hug on the campaign trail. Photo: Mark Condren.
Strikes a pose: Taoiseach Enda Kenny adopts his favoured hands-on-the-table stance with two women sitting in the window of the bookstore in Gorey. Photo: Mark Condren

His day begins after the death notices. A radio studio on the Wexford quays, pen in hand, notes piled high before him. Less than two minutes in, he uses the party catchphrase "keep the recovery going". Enda Kenny enunciates his message with practised solemnity. The harder the question, the more practised it can feel.

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His party foot-soldiers, suited as if for church, peer in at him through the window with what seems like adoration. In an adjoining studio, some national media hold microphones to a speaker. Presenter Alan Corcoran puts it to Kenny that he has "failed the young people of Wexford".

The sting in the charge seems to set the Taoiseach's hands into overdrive. He spreads them apart, palms open. There is something almost Papal in his bearing.

"No, I don't accept that," he intones sternly, proposing that Wexford's young unemployed simply have not "yet" felt the benefit of recovery. Just briefly, he seems faintly offended by the tone of the questioning, declaring: "I don't accept at all from you that we haven't delivered for them."

Then he mentions "legacy of failure" and I stand there thinking it's going to be a long day.

I fear I'm an agnostic in this world. I don't get the passion others hold for it. Beyond the serious debates, I am left cold by the institutional eejitry of campaigning, the distillation of everything down to a photo opportunity, the serial kidnapping of babies in the street, the puerile lamp-post wars, the mountains of printed jargon. I can't imagine anything worse than knocking on doors in that nervy pursuit of favour, the forced jollity at a congenial house, the faux sincerity at a hostile one, the clumsy nuzzling in close for a shopping-centre selfie.

I grew up in the same Nenagh street that produced the former Fianna Fáil Minister Michael O'Kennedy. I have childhood memories of him on the canvas and everything being convivial when he called. But neighbourliness would not extend to a promised vote. My parents were never betrothed to a party and even the arrival of a Ministerial Merc at the door would not change that.

The logic of a party-political mind has always, thus, escaped me. If I have a memory of the aftermath to the attempted 'heave' against Kenny in 2010, the face that comes quickest to mind is that of Paul Kehoe on the Leinster House forecourt hugging his great leader in an expression of man-love at its clumsiest. Kehoe, it seemed to me, looked quite besotted at that moment.

And positioned ceremonially in front of him, Enda smiled a smile revealing nothing.

On Tuesday, we crowded into ­Kehoe's office on Enniscorthy's Weafer Street and, sure enough, they were pushing children towards the Taoiseach, as if for blessing. The tiniest girl was asked to wave, yet stonily refused.

"She's going to cause a problem when she's 20, I'll tell you that," grinned Enda to guffaws.

He worked the room warmly, shaking every hand, reciting every name. One of Kehoe's campaigners, a local farmer, detained him in a serious exchange about farmers' incomes (down 20pc apparently). Bertie Warren mentioned issues like rendering and air pollution and the Taoiseach stood, engaging with him for maybe 10 full minutes until, like the bellow of a foghorn, someone shouted "C'mon, we'll go down the street!"

As the office quickly emptied, an acquaintance nudged Warren in the ribs. "He's a fair buachaill!"

They say Kenny is old-style, that he is happiest working rural towns, glad-handing anyone who makes eye-contact. People seemed momentarily startled to see him bounding across Market Square, but almost everybody smiled. He made himself accessible, a pointedly approachable Pied Piper pursued by the posse of media, activists and perhaps half a dozen gardai.

Some of the businesses he strode into seemed on message, as if pre-prepared for his arrival, "ah, good man Taoiseach, the last thing we need is a change....". Others seemed underwhelmed.

In Walter Bourke and Sons jewellers, the proprietor, Mary Bourke, was palpably uncomfortable with the circus suddenly spilling through her door. She engaged with a faintly distant politeness, all the time cagily observing those on the shop-floor. The town, she told him, was "very dead".

"That's why we have to keep the recovery going," said the Taoiseach instantly.

In Elizabeth's, a small, quiet drapery shop, he suggested to the woman behind the counter that business might be helped by selling online. "Face to face is important, but it might be worth a try..."

Further up Weafer Street, two shops were shuttered up. The town had a faintly empty, battered feel to it.

To those now struggling, Kenny has overseen a recovery forged on social injustice. He knows that anger is out there, the arguments about hospital patients on trolleys, about garda station closures, about homelessness and unemployment and, latterly, gang warfare in Dublin. He knows that, to the angry ones, he represents some kind of teacher's pet to a foreign troika.

Yet, watching him bounding back up that hill in Enniscorthy, it was hard not to be taken by Kenny's energy, his willingness to engage, to argue matters through, to communicate. In all of these things, he was better than I'd imagined.

I've long had a suspicion that when he speaks publicly, the Taoiseach is scripted to a soulless formality. He seems to endlessly retrace the same figures and stock phrases, making it difficult to know who or what exists behind that wall of politesse. It's as if his mouth is moving, but it's Oliver Callan that people hear.

Up close now, I sense him to be warmer, more human.

On Gorey's main street, just outside the campaign office of Michael D'Arcy, he is intercepted by Claire Merrigan. Her four-year-old son, Mason, has cystic fibrosis. She is trying to keep him out of hospital, where the greatest threat of infection lies, and is thus fighting for access to a new "miracle drug", Orkambi.

It is raining as she speaks, but Kenny stands listening. He mentions a patient that he knows with the condition and his understanding that the right treatment can greatly prolong a sufferer's life. "Are you supportive of it then," she asks of the push to make Orkambi freely available.

"I am of course!" he says.

"So when it comes to the Dáil, you'll support it?"

He says he will but, as he slips away, she says she's not sure if "he's just fobbing me off".

After a rousing speech to activists in D'Arcy's office, he crosses the street into The Book Cafe, where startled diners greet his arrival with a mix of expressions. Most are palpably star-struck, but a few make faces that suggest they won't be shaking his hand, even if offered Marigolds for the act.

Towards the back of the restaurant, he engages in conversation with two men sitting to lunch. Kenny's way is to lean low now, both hands on the table, in a pose inferring intimacy. As the media crowds around, two women at the next table - a mother and daughter perhaps - make a point of not touching their meals. They look uncomfortable with the press of people.

The Taoiseach's 'chat' stretches to almost 10 minutes, but the women don't take a bite. Eventually, the younger one takes out a pink iPhone and takes a picture of Kenny and his entourage, as if in resignation.

On his way out, Enda takes the same hands-on-the-table pose with two ladies sitting at the front window. It's a ready-made shot for photographers who pour out onto the pavement. As the shutters click, Kehoe settles next to his leader, adopting the identical posture. Somewhere behind, D'Arcy must be fearing he's missed a trick here.

In Wicklow town, the first real sign of trouble.

There's a small pocket of Right2Change protesters outside the terraced office of local Fine Gael candidate Andrew Doyle. They stand with a poster almost the width of the building and, one of those holding it, a teenage boy, clams that his father has had a mobile phone "snapped in two.'' When asked who was responsible, he responds vaguely.

After another rousing of the troops inside - "this is the most critical decision they (the electorate) will take in the next 50 years" - the Taoiseach's black BMW 730 is nudged closer to the front door, seemingly to facilitate a swift exit. Outside, some members of the gardai exchange banter with the protesters. All seems largely civilised.

But, as Kenny materialises, the mood turns. Loud, intemperate shouting erupts, a woman within arm's length calling him "a disgrace". Yet, as the passenger door of the BMW swings open, the Taoiseach does something surprising. He asks for his coat.

The decision to go walk-about seems to catch everybody by surprise, including the protesters. Smiling, Kenny strides away, swinging up on to the higher side of the split-level street and stopping to chat outside a closed-down shop to two clearly startled schoolgirls.

From there, he moves on to The Sports Room, a leisurewear shop, stepping inside, the anger of perhaps half a dozen protesters still bristling out in the street.

As he emerges again, the same woman is calling him "a traitor".

A man shouts at him to get out of town, that he's "not welcome" here. The broad compendium of voices then chorus at him to get "Out, Out, Out!" The Taoiseach is still smiling as he turns back towards his car.

A slightly wasted looking teenager mumbles after him, "Jayzus, he's some neck thinking he could just breeze into this town!"

I am surprised by the Taoiseach's stubbornness, his defiance. He doesn't have to do this. The streets are shiny with rain and there are few enough supporters to be heard above the anger. Yet, he's made a point of walking, of letting the town know that he's here. Of leaving a Prime Minister's footprint.

The day's campaigning ends in a Bray industrial estate where he finally feeds the national appetite for a response to Dublin's gangland viciousness. He's been consulting through the day with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. But, before the grilling commences, he spends a small age quite literally interviewing staff at Newmarket Kitchen.

"What's your story then?"

"Why did you come home?"

"Do you sense things getting better?"

At 64, his mental agility is remarkable. As he steps to the microphone, he name-calls people he's been introduced to maybe 20 minutes earlier. "Robert there, who's come back from Canada..." "Or as Margaret from Monaghan over there said to me..."

True, there's been something fundamentally sanitised about the day. With no local advertising of the itinerary, it felt as if most of Wicklow town was especially staying indoors, curtains pulled. But what informality arose tended to come at the Taoiseach's own instigation. As a sports writer, working a landscape of increasingly bland, headphone-wearing automatons, conditioned to keep the outside world at a distance, his accessibility was a surprise.

Before leaving for Sligo, he agrees to a quick, unscheduled chat upstairs.

I am intrigued to know who exactly Enda Kenny is. So much of a Prime Minister's existence is just public theatre, ceremonial role-playing, what does he become when the camera lights go dim?

He smiles at the question. Some months back, he took possession of a sleep-tracker watch and its findings suggested he was averaging just four-and-a-quarter hours of sleep a night. He says he reads voraciously. Just now, his bed-time tome is The Whisperers - Private Life in Stalin's Russia, but it could be anything from a sports autobiography to a historic novel.

"If I go into a bookshop, I'll come out with maybe 20 books," he says. "I must have 500 at home that I've yet to read."

He says he manages his energy by taking exercise when he can. He's climbed Kilimanjaro, Snowdon and Ben Nevis in the past and is almost intimate with the rocky ascent of Croagh Patrick. He might cycle 40 miles if at home for the weekend and has retained that wiry junior footballer's frame of Islandeady

Sometimes, he gets a sense of life just from being in a particular place. "Walk down to Bolas Head there outside Ballinskelligs and look west at Skellig Michael," he says. "If that doesn't inspire you as an Irish person, nothing will!"

But the job he does, the inevitable brutality of decision-making, the relentlessness of performance?

"Mentally, it can be very tiring," he acknowledges. "So that means you can't go overboard on other excesses like alcohol. You have to be very focused on what you want to do here.

"I'm not the kind of person who ever suffered from stress, I have to say.

''Even though some of the decisions that have to come my way - certainly in the last five years - were of serious importance to so many people, put them through a pretty horrendous time.

''For me, politics is always about people and government is about making decisions.

"You have to say no on lots of occasions but where you can say yes, let it be for the greater good. That's what government is about and that's what democracy is about because at the end of the day, they'll judge you one way or the other and that's their absolute right."

He stands to leave with a handshake that could pulp apples. Darkness is falling, but the day is young.

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