John Downing: Why Kenny is no longer the unlikely Taoiseach
Published 20/07/2013 | 05:00
JUST this time three years ago he was rated too lightweight to be Taoiseach – but now his leadership style is being compared with that of Charlie Haughey, and his government tactics are likened to Nazi propagandists.
As he heads towards the mid-point in his government's five-year term, Enda Kenny is looking less like 'The Unlikely Taoiseach' as his many critics had styled him. He has pushed through the country's first ever abortion legislation with minimal party losses, delivered some home truths to the Catholic Church, finally advancing the blurred distinctions between church and state.
He has shown political steel and skill which many people doubted he had.
But he also knows that many political perils lie ahead in a country still bedevilled by economic recession, with little scope to ease up on unrelenting economic austerity and a very brave, if not foolhardy, pledge to create vast numbers of jobs.
As Lucinda Creighton departed the Fine Gael parliamentary party and her junior ministry last week, she spoke darkly about comparisons with the 'Haughey era' in the 1980s, summed up by PJ Mara's infamous phrase 'Una Duce – Una Voce'.
Ms Creighton managed to exit with dignity – but Kenny supporters found the Haughey comparison nothing short of calumnious.
"Enda Kenny gave hours of discussion to every TD and senator who needed it – including Lucinda. In the end if incentives and sympathy do not work – there is no other option," one insider summed up.
Equally, Fianna Fail senator Mary White's comparison between Fine Gael's abolish-the-Seanad campaign launch and Nazi propaganda, was extremely strained. But, that said, the Taoiseach must tread cautiously in the matter of the Seanad referendum, which will be first business up after a well-deserved summer holiday.
Yesterday, Mr Kenny told the Irish Independent he expected the Fine Gael senators to campaign in favour of the extinguishing of their jobs in the forthcoming referendum campaign. The chances of that actually happening are definitely to be counted in minus quantities.
The Taoiseach has cleverly pushed his former leadership heave rival, Richard Bruton, right into the gap of danger on this one by making him campaign director.
And they were both gifted a blunder by senators this week when they over-reacted in a most inappropriate way to Bruton's bogus claims that Seanad abolition will save taxpayers €20m per year. But the voters will approach this Seanad referendum with a deal of indifference, heavily tinged with suspicion.
It does not take a wild leap of imagination to see voters fearing the Taoiseach's personal crusade to abolish the Seanad has another agenda – perhaps even a power grab.
To fervent anti-abortion campaigners, Kenny is to be recorded as the Taoiseach who put abortion on the Irish statute books.
But he insists he remains a mass-going Catholic.
One is reminded of his comment last month, when he said: "I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach."
That was a broadside response to the Catholic bishops, who had come out strongly against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.
It followed on his landmark speech excoriating the Vatican authorities in the wake of the Cloyne child abuse scandal in July 2011, just four months after taking office.
As a past pupil of St Gerald's De La Salle school in Castlebar who went on to become a principal teacher, Kenny is an unlikely bishop basher. His insistence on putting more distance between church and state is arguably more a sign of the changes in Ireland than any stand-out display of courage.
He concluded a difficult and divisive week in Fine Gael by appointing Hildegarde Naughton to the Seanad seat left vacant since the resignation of Martin McAleese last February.
Naughten is a Galway city councillor and former mayor of that city, with Dail ambitions, who polled a third of a quota in Galway West in February 2011.
The appointment is a move against sitting Galway West TD, Brian Walsh, and Senator Fidelma Healy Eames who narrowly lost out in February 2011.
They were among the five TDs and two senators expelled from the FG parliamentary party for voting against the abortion legislation.
It is clear that these party tensions will persist. But Mr Kenny's four decades in national politics have taught him that in reality the Taoiseach's job is first and last about the economy, jobs and bread and butter.
Here the Coalition has made slow but steady progress. But serious problems still remain as the country prepares to exit the bailout and no great sign of economic recovery in Europe.
Yesterday, Mr Kenny was keen to dampen expectations of a 'soft' Budget on October 15 next.
But he and his Government colleagues also made huge promises in the new 'Pathways to Work' scheme with 20,000 people to be taken off the unemployment register over the next 12 months, 75,000 by end of 2015, moving to full employment by 2020.
The Taoiseach and his team may yet rue making such extravagant promises.