Sunday 21 December 2014

The man we didn't know

Cunning, ruthless and feared are not the sort of adjectives you'd normally associate with Enda Kenny, but those are the kind of characteristics that have guided him through three turbulent years as Taoiseach. John Downing on the Mayo deputy who rose to the top against the odds

Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: David Conachy.
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: David Conachy.
Man of the people: Enda Kenny arrives at the EU council headquarters, Brussels, for an EU leaders’ summit.
Enda Kenny in defence for the 2003 friendly match between the Oireachtas and the PSNI.
Enda Kenny with Barack Obama and David Cameron at last year’s G8 summit in Enniskillen.
Supporters carry Enda Kenny on his first day in the Dail on November 18, 1975

Each working day in Dublin begins at 6.45am for Enda Kenny. As he readies himself for the five-minute walk from his flat near Fenian Street to Government Buildings in Merrion Street, he listens carefully to the radio to get the shape of the political news day.

Unlike his predecessors as Taoiseach, who relied on news clippings and written summaries, he is a keen student of radio, television and the newspapers. Visitors to his office see the newspapers in little piles with certain articles underlined and circles around key phrases.

"Criticism doesn't bother me. I've a job to do," he claimed recently. His job is, however, trying to figure out what people think.

But after three years at Government Buildings, things are now very different for Enda Kenny. At last he feels in political control.

"For years as Fine Gael leader he was never in a strong position. There was no great acceptance of him by many in the party. Richard Bruton went to Clongowes and Oxford and was an economist. Enda was a national schoolteacher from Mayo. His own party colleagues were the most 'sniffy' about Enda.

"Now all that is changed. Many in the Cabinet, except Michael Noonan who has special status, have a certain fear of him. He is not close to any of his ministers and he doesn't socialise with any of them," a long-time friend argues.

"Many people claim to be close to Enda Kenny – but they're not," another long-term associate says. "The man is ever affable, hail-fellow-well-met and friendly. But he doesn't really let people in."

His journey from backbench TD to Taoiseach took him all of 36 years. The image of likeable underachiever followed him from his election to the Dáil in November 1975 right up to the botched heave against his leadership of Fine Gael in June 2010.

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Supporters carry Enda Kenny on his first day in the Dail on November 18, 1975

But he persisted and was given a definitive boost by defeating that heave which gave him a steelier image and allowed him drive on and become Taoiseach.

"I didn't believe Enda when he said he didn't care what the 'D4 snoots' thought of him. But I believe him by now. He absolutely doesn't give a fiddlers," another political associate says.

There were a number of key turning points on his marathon journey from Islandeady, four miles outside Castlebar, to Government Buildings on Merrion Street. The first came on January 3, 1992, when he married Fionnuala O'Kelly, with whom he had a 10-year on/off courtship.

They met at Leinster House in 1982 where she had come to work as Fianna Fáil leader Charlie Haughey's highly rated party press officer. The 'love across enemy lines' story was for long the worst-kept secret in Irish politics.

Everyone agrees that marriage changed him and gave him much more focus. He was almost 41 years old and she was nearly six years younger when they married. Fionnuala, who went on to work as RTÉ's press officer, eventually, in 1997, abandoned working outside the home and moved to Castlebar to raise their three children.

Fionnuala stays very much in the political background but she chooses all his clothes and counsels him on image and presentation. "She remains a huge influence and he listens to her advice," an old friend recalls.

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Enda Kenny with Barack Obama and David Cameron at last year’s G8 summit in Enniskillen.

The second turning point came on February 1, 2001, when he flabbergasted colleagues by announcing he was going to contest the Fine Gael leadership. Effectively he was saying he wanted to be Taoiseach.

The majority of Fine Gael TDs and senators liked Kenny and rated him as a parliamentary colleague. But very few saw him as a potential party leader helping them defeat Fianna Fáil.

Kenny had backed his embattled party leader, John Bruton, to the hilt in his efforts to fend off various leadership heaves. Then he stood as a 'Brutonite' against the 'dream team' of Michael Noonan and the late Jim Mitchell, who had finally ousted John Bruton.

He got a respectable vote but lost to Noonan. There began a tricky relationship with the veteran Limerick politician. Amid much acrimony, Noonan failed to give Kenny a frontbench appointment. Kenny sulked for months, barely attending Leinster House, devoting all his energy to his Mayo constituency and taking occasional pot-shots at Noonan's floundering leadership.

It all turned out to be quite a stroke of luck. Noonan's Fine Gael had a meltdown election in May 2002. Kenny was among the 31 FG TDs returned though he barely held his seat.

On June 5, 2002, almost 27 years after he was first elected a TD, Enda Kenny was elected leader of Fine Gael. Michael Noonan did not figure on Kenny's first frontbench. The public would later learn that this was largely due to the illness of his wife Florence.

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Enda Kenny in defence for the 2003 friendly match between the Oireachtas and the PSNI.

In 2004, Kenny gave Noonan the biggest plum he had in his gift as opposition leader by making him chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Still, during Enda's 'years of doubt', Noonan was never seen as supportive or helpful. But Noonan's decision to stand well back from the June 2010 heave was crucial to Kenny's fate and their future relationship. Noonan has become the folksy elder statesman of government.

Sure-footed and astute as a crisis-managing finance minister, he is a great political asset to Kenny and relations are very good. But it is a professional relationship based on political exigencies. "Enda can forgive – but he has a long memory," one minister sums up.

Another minister says Kenny's greatest asset of all is his almost 40 years of political experience. He grudgingly got his first government appointment from Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in February 1986 when he became Junior Minister for Education and Youth Affairs.

It gave him a ringside seat at Garret's hugely botched cabinet reshuffle when Health Minister Barry Desmond of Labour refused to budge from his job. Kenny later saw behind closed doors the political handling errors of John Bruton who he loyally backed. "John had a ferocious temper. It got him into trouble. Enda is never, ever like that. It's a great help in things like relations with the Labour Party.

"Sometimes Labour are pissed off with James Reilly or Phil Hogan. They rarely have any problem with Enda," another minister sums up.

But he is also seen by party colleagues as 'cunning and ruthless'.

His peremptory sacking of Junior Minister Lucinda Creighton last July after the abortion vote is cited as evidence.

But within the party there is little sympathy for Creighton who had been given a key government job after less than three years at Leinster House.

Most FG TDs and senators expect his summer cabinet reshuffle to be 'minimal' with not very much action. He will replace the minister he sends to Brussels as EU Commissioner, still thought to be Phil Hogan, and promote someone to replace Junior Finance Minister, Brian Hayes, who is expected to take a European Parliament seat.

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Man of the people: Enda Kenny arrives at the EU council headquarters, Brussels, for an EU leaders’ summit.

"There are those who claim they package Enda – but they're exaggerating at very least. Enda is his own person," that is the strong view of a long-time political collaborator.

A team of six people work closely with him at Government Buildings and he sets great store by Martin Fraser, the secretary general to the government, who was appointed just weeks after the Government was elected in 2011.

Of the six advisers, Mark Kennelly, a Fine Gael 'lifer' who also advised Michael Noonan and John Bruton, is the one most feared by the parliamentary party. This is at least partly due to Kennelly's role as 'the one who says no' and defends his man.

Enda Kenny's Fine Gael party is now extremely centralised, with general secretary, Tom Curran, playing a key role. Both Curran and strategy director Frank Flannery are all powerful in framing FG's upcoming local and European election campaigns.

But Kenny is clearly uncomfortable facing questions about Flannery's current travails with the Public Accounts Committee due to his roles past and present with Rehab. It is a test of Kenny's sense of loyalty which party colleagues agree is one of his strong points.

They point to the way he persisted with Junior Minister John Perry last summer as he faced considerable business difficulties and questions. More recently, he stood by Health Minister James Reilly and Justice Minister Alan Shatter.

"Kenny is loyal as long as he knows there is no wrongdoing. But if wrongdoing emerges that would certainly change things," another FG veteran says.

As he passes the three-year mark tomorrow he has made one thing abundantly clear.

He wants to be the first to lead Fine Gael to a second consecutive general election win and this is already his prime focus as he counts off the days to spring 2016.

"Back-to-back would be great. It's not easy to achieve. Obviously, we'll be judged by the people in just over 104 weeks' time," he said last week.

John Downing is the author of 'Enda Kenny – The Unlikely Taoiseach'

A man for all seasons

'His brand of State eejitry goes down well and I think most people see him as being a harmless character'

SEÁN BÁN BREATHNACH

BROADCASTER

"To use a rugby saying I think he got the ball in a standing position when he came into power and when you consider that, he's done a fantastic job.

"That said I know people here in the west of Ireland were very disappointed that he didn't come down personally to visit the towns and parishes decimated during the storms. He should have showed better leadership.

"If there's a fart in the east of the country he and his government rush to deal with it even if there's a hurricane blowing in the west."

JILLIAN VAN TURNHOUT

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS ACTIVIST

"I've been particularly impressed with Mr Kenny's ability to evolve, to allow discussions on important social issues and to remain dignified throughout.

"He's tackled social issues which certainly weren't vote winners because, I believe, he's compassionate and since he's been Taoiseach the whole area of children's rights has improved.

By establishing the Department of Children and the Child and Family Agency he's showing that he prioritises children's rights.''

TOM CURRAN

PARTNER OF THE LATE MARIE FLEMING

"Over the last three years Enda Kenny has become wonderful at making promises, but not so good at keeping them.

"He published the National Carers' Strategy which was great – but since then nothing suggested has been carried out. The commitments keep coming but they're duly ignored.

"I have no doubt but that he's a genuine and well-meaning man but if anything he makes too many pledges, and he's not the only one.

"When I met Enda Kenny last August he told me he'd love to come and visit Marie in her home and I said 'just say when and I'll arrange it'. We didn't hear any more from him after that and, of course, Marie passed away in December."

JAMES HORAN

MAYO SENIOR FOOTBALL MANAGER

"Enda has been a great supporter of the Mayo team all his life and was a very decent player himself, he's steeped in GAA and his father won an All-Ireland for the county back in 1936.

"When I meet him at social functions or on the golf course we chat about GAA and he's a great reader of the game. We're a team that wants to achieve and he's one of ours who has achieved – so I think we can learn an awful lot from him.

"Obviously if we were to win an All-Ireland while he was still Taoiseach that would be something special – I know it would mean so much to Enda.

GERALDINE PLUNKETT

ACTRESS

"Since he became Taoiseach you really see that Enda Kenny has improved his public performance, he looks more confident and assured. But I wouldn't want his job for love nor money, it would be awful.

"Funding to the arts has been decimated. Across the country so many fine theatres have closed their doors and actors are struggling to find work, many are leaving.

"I'm not sure if the Taoiseach understands the long-term consequences of this. We sell Ireland abroad based on our writers, poets and playwrights. The amount of money needed to keep the industry in decent shape would be a drop in the ocean for the Government."

OLIVER CALLAN

SATIRIST AND IMPRESSIONIST

"I started doing Enda back in 2004 on Gift Grub. Since he became Taoiseach he's persona has changed – in opposition he was wooden, showing no emotion and barely raising his voice.

"Over the last few years he's been emotional on the Magdalene Laundries issue and stern on the closing of the Irish embassy to the Vatican – which will be opened again any day now!

"His role is presidential. A strength of his is to be aware of his limitations and he's a great man to delegate.

"Enda's brand of State eejitry goes down especially well with the Americans and I think most people see him as being a harmless character.

"He always looks so delighted to be in the job and I think he'll be Taoiseach after the next general election too – which is good news for me."

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