Sunday 20 August 2017

Fionnan Sheahan on Enda Kenny: A man of the times who butchered a golden opportunity

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: “So, is it ok if I go now?” Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny: “So, is it ok if I go now?” Photo: Tom Burke
Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

Doheny and Nesbitt, that well-known watering hole just around the corner from Leinster House and Government Buildings, was the scene for a latter-day celebration, akin to the Captain's table on board the Titanic.

It was a sunny evening in mid-July 2014. The beating Fine Gael had taken in the local elections was offset by some canny campaigning in the European elections to get Deirdre Clune elected and was utterly overshadowed by the swift bloodletting in the Labour Party, which dispatched Eamon Gilmore as leader and saw him replaced by Joan Burton.

The tail end of the succeeding reshuffle had taken place that day with the appointment of a new corps of junior ministers.

Kenny was mingling with his new Ministers of State in the pub, cracking jokes and getting to know the new team with his trademark punch on the shoulder.

It's a big deal getting the nod; an acknowledgement of time put in or foresight of promotion to come.

At the opposite end of the bar were a few disgruntled backbenchers looking fed up.

Enda Kenny with John McNulty. The Seanad election debacle showed how the Taoiseach failed to understand the public wanted an end to ‘stroke’ politics
Enda Kenny with John McNulty. The Seanad election debacle showed how the Taoiseach failed to understand the public wanted an end to ‘stroke’ politics

But getting a junior ministry wouldn't matter a squat to many there that night when the time would come two years later.

The iceberg was dead ahead.

Kenny's day had come - and gone. The last three years had just been about clinging on.

It wasn't supposed to be that way.

Read more: Lucky general lacked courage - and conviction

A grateful nation was supposed to hail the Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition for bringing back a semblance of authority to the running of the country after the rag-tag chaos of the last months of the ancien Fianna Fáil regime.

Kenny's government had restored stability to the public finances and taken the country out of a bailout.

Worn out by austerity and not seeing the new dawn of a political era they were promised, the voters astounded them with their ingratitude.

The arrogance was always going to creep in when Fine Gael returned to power.

The party had been out of office for the best part of a decade-and-a-half, so it was hard for them not to feel invincible.

The public didn't believe they owed Kenny and his coalition any thanks.

Besides, the Taoiseach was singularly failing to answer the post-bailout question: what next?

Kenny had always struggled with the 'vision' issue. He had no shortage of soundbites and focus-grouped policies, but he just never had the ability to inspire belief that he had a notion of how the country and society could and should develop over the next generation.

He spoke repeatedly of Ireland becoming "the best small country in the world in which to do business, grow old and raise a family". But he could never articulate what this actually meant.

Moreover, there was always the sense that - deep down - driving Fianna Fáil out was an end in itself for many in Fine Gael, particularly those around Kenny who he placed in positions of influence.

He is a politician of the old school, where a two-party State was always the game in town.

Read more: Enda: the unlikely Taoiseach who rose without a trace

There's a tale told by a former Fine Gael staffer about the Mayo West by-election of June 1994.

Arriving 'over from Dublin' to work in the by-election office, the handler innocently asked about the identity and prospects of the Labour Party candidate.

"We don't get the minority parties round here," came the abrupt reply.

At the time, Labour had a then-record number of Spring tide TDs and was in government.

Mayo is one of those few places left now, probably along with Limerick West and Cork North-West, where the "minority parties" rarely get a look in and the swing in seats is mainly between the two Civil War parties.

Kenny is of this mindset, where the Fianna Fáiler is the only opponent worth talking about.

In their early days back in power, senior Fine Gael figures spoke of the need for the party to get in for a decade to purge the system of the influence of Fianna Fáil appointments.

And replace them with what? Well, Fine Gael appointments, of course. The view in Fine Gael was there was nothing wrong with that, as their cronies were honest and decent people.

In anyone else's language, it was still cronyism.

This partisan view of politics would also manifest itself in government, where Labour advisers would be taken aback at how ideological their Fine Gael counterparts would become, behaving as though they were brave Horatio at the bridge defending Rome from the barbarian hordes of Tuscany.

The Doheny and Nesbitt celebration wasn't the last chapter of the local and European election fallout, though.

Later that summer, when it came to a Seanad by-election to replace Clune - who had gone to the European Parliament - Kenny's Fine Gael picked a party activist from Donegal called John McNulty.

They appointed him to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art to ensure he would qualify as a Seanad candidate.

And then they got caught.

McNulty famously didn't get elected.

Nobody in Fine Gael ever took the blame for the debacle, either internally or externally, for what was an act of supreme political avarice that failed to see the wider picture that the public wanted an end to the days of the 'stroke'.

The saga was vomit-inducing and showed Fine Gael had learned nothing from the crisis.

Yet this lack of true reforming zeal reflected itself across Kenny's approach to so many areas. He would go only so far, back someone only so far, push the limit only so far - such that the effect would invariably become meaningless. His downfall has appropriately been the failure to act on the rot that has set in at the heart of An Garda Síochána.

Unfortunately, that sums up the culture of Enda Kenny's administration. He deserves credit for restoring stability to the country, for being a man of the time. But the Kenny era will also be remembered as a time when a leader was presented the greatest opportunity to bring about fundamental change to our country and appallingly wasted it.

Irish Independent

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