Enda Kenny... A man for all seasons
A 24-year-old Enda Kenny wasn't everyone's tip to win a crucial Mayo by-election for Fine Gael on November 12, 1975. It was the first time that the future Taoiseach would surprise the pundits - but far from the last. His biographer examines the record of a ruthless, if gaffe-prone, politician who believes his best triumphs still lie ahead
Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30
With his blow-dried blonde locks curled pageboy-style around his ears, Enda Kenny arrived at the Castlebar Military Barracks, which was doing duty as the by-election count centre. It was after 4pm on Thursday, November 13, 1975.
Aged just 24, he had begun a 40-year career - and a stop-start journey - which would take him to the Taoiseach's office on March 9, 2011. Four decades on, he has grounds to hope he can renew his tenancy at Government Buildings next spring.
Punters brave enough to have taken the odds on "Young Kenny" winning his late father's Dáil seat by more than 2,000 votes went home very happy as he had hoovered up 53pc of the vote. Then-Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave was even happier, as the wafer-thin majority for his Fine-Gael-Labour Coalition was sustained and a snap general election averted.
It was a by-election from a previous century: replete with flaming tar barrels illuminating political street theatre; after-Mass verbal and sometimes physical jousts; back-of-the-lorry party political excoriations; and dramatic torchlight marches with blazing paraffin-soaked turf sods mounted on pitch forks.
Tonight in Castlebar and in the coming days, as he marks 40 continuous years as a member of Dáil Éireann with deliberately low-key celebrations, Kenny remains in pole position to be the Taoiseach once more after the next General Election. A first ever back-to-back election win for Fine Gael could definitively confound critics, whose doubts about his suitability echo across four decades to this very day.
But that perceived "pole position to win again" is of itself an albatross. The corollary view that "the next one is Enda Kenny's to lose," again feeds critics arguing the re-emergence of "gaffe-prone Kenny."
Critics add that this is the Kenny who periodically over-reaches himself via USA-style folk parables, which tell us about a need for adulation that exceeds respect for the facts. The stretched canard of the "army on standby to guard bank ATMs" in 2012 has revived doubts about Kenny's reliability. His love affair with folklore again challenges credibility.
Young Kenny, as Liam Cosgrave called him, was part of the Kenny political "family firm" which had allied to Fine Gael.
He was just three when his father, Henry Kenny, first won a Dáil seat for Fine Gael in May 1954. Henry was a schoolteacher and part-time farmer, revered across Mayo and nationally as an icon of Gaelic football in the 1930s and 1940s.
Fine Gael had inveigled him to stand in 1954 to halt the rural rights campaigners, Clann na Talmhan, and also match Fianna Fáil, who had recently recruited a newer Mayo football star, Seán Flanagan.
Kenny Snr dug in as a career rural TD and county councillor. His wife Ethna and eventually all of their five children helped with daily constituency work and election campaigns.
Henry Kenny got his only taste of government office in 1973, when he was made a junior minister responsible for the Office of Public Works. Soon after he was diagnosed with cancer and died in September 1975 at the relatively young age of 62.
After the funeral, Cosgrave let it be known he needed a Kenny on the by-election ballot to keep his government in office. A car was sent from Dublin to ferry Enda and older brother Henry to meet the Taoiseach.
Some party people thought Enda the more presentable of the two. Others argued that Henry, then aged 28, had the benefit of being his late father's exact namesake. But Henry stepped aside and Enda stood, with the older brother keeping his pledge to support him locally as long as he could, ultimately serving for decades as a Mayo county councillor.
Cosgrave, who had rated Enda Kenny, vanished off the political scene after the shock defeat of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition in June 1977 in Jack Lynch's Fianna Fáil landslide election win.
Cosgrave's successor, Garret FitzGerald, never rated Kenny, even right up to his death in May 2011, when Kenny was Taoiseach. FitzGerald's successor, Alan Dukes, took the same view and for a time so did the next party leader, John Bruton.
The threat of the emerging Progressive Democrats got Kenny a junior ministry in 1986 at the tail-end of FitzGerald's Fine Gael-Labour coalition. His other government appointment, 30 months as Tourism Minister, came in December 1994 when Bruton defied the odds to put the Rainbow Coalition together.
By late 1994, however, Bruton had come to value Kenny's battling skills as the Chief Whip who helped him survive two years of threats to his leadership. In February 1994, Kenny had helped stymie a blatant attempted coup against Bruton. The skills honed served Kenny well when he faced down a similar putsch in June 2010. But despite this, the long period of doubt about the genial Mayo TD had taken root. Generally, he was perceived as flippant, unduly interested in socialising, and for a long period in three-seat Mayo West, accused of "quota squatting" and allowing Fianna Fáil to easily take the third seat en route to power.
Kenny's many supporters resented this as a caricature by the moneyed and urbane in Fine Gael. They countered that the party did not support them against Fianna Fáil in tight Mayo battles. They argued that Kenny showed what he could do nationally and locally when he got his chance.
Kenny again backed Bruton against a final and successful coup by Michael Noonan and Jim Mitchell in February 2001. Kenny then astounded many party colleagues when he stood against Noonan for the Fine Gael leadership and polled 28 votes to the Limerick veteran's 44. For many, it was a huge shock to learn that Kenny had harboured leadership ambitions for the previous 25 years.
The bigger shock was Noonan's failure to give Kenny a front-bench seat as he had the support of one third of the parliamentary party. In time, Kenny would treat the Limerick man with far more pragmatism and grace than Noonan showed in the spring of 2001.
But 2002 was the point when the now famous "Kenny luck" began to manifest itself in a big way.
After the leadership defeat and backbench banishment in early 2001, Kenny had sulked at length, and retreated to Mayo. The 2002 General Election brought carnage to Noonan's Fine Gael with the loss of 31 Dáil seats and the return of Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fáil to power.
Kenny was blessed to have been banished and be nowhere near the party's disaster. But his luck did not stop there: by the seventh count in that election in Mayo, he was 400 votes behind party rival Jim Higgins.
Then a lucky sequence of eliminations in count eight put him just 87 votes in front of Higgins. When Higgins was eliminated, his transfers elected Kenny, who had hours earlier been working on his speech conceding defeat.
Kenny's survival led him to the leadership of Fine Gael, billed by some as a party on the verge of extinction. There followed years of battling and slow rebuilding, success in local and European elections and, ultimately, defeat in the 2007 General Election.
Doubt about Kenny built again in summer 2010, even as Brian Cowen's Fianna Fáil imploded and a huge recession racked the Irish economy. Eleven members of his own 19-strong front bench, people he himself had chosen, came out publicly against his leadership.
It is hard to imagine it now, but in June 2010 they actually backed the low-key Bruton - these days restored to the Fine Gael fold as Jobs Minister - as the better contender for Taoiseach. At the time, Kenny correctly argued that he would emulate two previous party leaders - Cosgrave in 1974 and Bruton in 1994 - to fend off this leadership challenge and become Taoiseach in a short time.
He rightly took phenomenal strength from the events of June 14 to June 17, 2010, when he outclassed the conspirators with a counter-move, rallying the rest of the parliamentary party. He showed an abundance of coolness, courage and strategic judgment, qualities not many people thought he possessed. But there was some luck in the timing of the failed coup against him as an election followed eight months later where he recorded the biggest win by any Fine Gael leader.
Landing the job of Taoiseach - the highest political office in the land - should surely have banished many doubts about Kenny. His stock should be higher if you were to rely on the sheaf of economic indicators which have helped his own, his government's and Ireland's image internationally.
His copybook divide and conquer tactics definitively ended any prospect of another tilt at his Fine Gael leadership. The man's irrepressible sunny demeanour and the good outcome of two well-managed state visits, by US President Obama and Britain's Queen Elizabeth, in 2011 extended the government honeymoon.
Economic growth is at record levels when compared to the rest of Europe; unemployment is down from a 15.1pc high to 9.3pc; emigration has fallen. As far back as October 2012, the US global news magazine Time featured him on its cover with the headline "The Celtic Comeback".
Across the EU, which he has assiduously cultivated since taking on the Fine Gael leadership in June 2002 through the Christian Democrat group network, his stock is high. He is also well rated in London and in the USA, which he has frequently visited in efforts to drive inward investment to Ireland with some success.
But the deeply frustrated voters are slow to forgive this Government for austerity - or indeed trust any politicians. Kenny's ham-fisted efforts to show how close Ireland was to the brink four years ago do not help matters.
Reliability and reputation are at a premium. Opinion polls, with up to a quarter of people solidly favouring "Independents & Others", suggest voters are eyeing political newcomers, even if many of those voters also know they are only storing up future disappointment. Still, 40 continuous years as a TD is a huge span of time given the nature of politics.
Kenny's early days at Leinster House coincided with the residual 1916-1922 generation. His father's friend, Dick Gogan, still a Fianna Fáil TD when Kenny was first elected, had carried James Connolly's stretcher in the GPO during Easter week 1916.
Kenny will be 65 next April 24, just soon after the next election campaign. He is fitter and more energetic than many people half his age, his patience and good-nature belie an ability to be ruthless when required, as evidenced by the sudden departures in 2014 of former Justice Minister Alan Shatter and former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.
He will need all these traits as he faces the most unpredictable Irish election since 1948. He has yet to decide the date, after being forced by Labour to relent on a strong urge to hold it this month.
The latest legal date for a general election is April 9. But many in Fine Gael favour late February, while others focus their speculation on or about March 12, ahead of St Patrick's Day and Easter Sunday 2016, which falls on March 27.
"March 12 would allow him go to the White House on St Patrick's Day and also allow him be Taoiseach for the Easter 2016 commemorations. Irrespective of the election outcome, he would still be Taoiseach," one Leinster House veteran speculated this week.
Article 16.4.2 of the Irish Constitution provides a maximum 30-day delay on convening the Dáil after election day.
Internal government debate continues about whether an election campaign through the Easter 2016 pageantry would favour Sinn Féin, or the government incumbents, who could silently look "governmental" in myriad photograph opportunities.
That decision on election timing will prove crucial to the fate of those lingering doubts about Kenny.
John Downing is author of the Enda Kenny - The Unlikely Taoiseach (Paperweight, 2012).