Wednesday 28 September 2016

Taoiseach saved FG and the country but spark is gone

Published 14/07/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny helped to revitalise Fine Gael Photo: Tony Gavin
Enda Kenny helped to revitalise Fine Gael Photo: Tony Gavin

There was a time when Fine Gael saw Enda Kenny as a "fresh face with long political experience" capable of "re-energising" the party.

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That time was 2001, when the Mayo TD was going head-to-head with Michael Noonan for the leadership.

A lot has happened in the 15 years since the two political heavyweights were at the centre of an internal party battle.

It was during the 2001 leadership contest between the now Taoiseach and Finance Minister that Mr Kenny said he had the "energy and the stamina to re-energise and revitalise the Fine Gael electorate".

"This row, if you like, was about lack of image, lack of style, a different form of leader, a new face. I have electorate contact with people in a way that, I believe, Jim Mitchell or Michael Noonan do not have. I'm going to electrify the Fine Gael party," Mr Kenny said.

Mr Noonan went on to win that battle but his term at the top of the party was short-lived after Fine Gael slumped to a massive poll defeat at the hands of Bertie Ahern.

And as a result, in June 2002, Mr Kenny took control of a defeated and depleted party with just 31 TDs.

He set about touring the country to meet the grassroots and find new members, addressing gatherings in Kilkenny, Galway and Cork and making direct contact with 4,000 supporters by the end of that month.

He met city and county councillors to stress that Seanad nominees must be Dáil material and promised to expose "the crassness and contempt that lies at the heart of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition".

And at one public event, he mused that Fine Gael had made "the fatal mistake of behaving, not as an effective opposition - but as a government-in-waiting".

The crowds loved it. He was re-energising the party and bringing the challenge to the 'Teflon Taoiseach'.

At the 2007 election, Mr Kenny added 20 TDs and while they couldn't make up the numbers to oust the Fianna Fáil government, hope was restored to the ranks. Fast-forward another four years - skipping his crafty dismissal of the 2010 heave - and on the evening of February 26, 2011, Mr Kenny received a phone call from his old boss Liam Cosgrave.

The then 91-year-old said: "I'm an old man now but you have made me proud."

There's no denying that Mr Kenny took the lead in a government facing into the abyss and brought the country back.

This week, Phil Hogan went so far as to say that he "saved" Ireland, while his old rival Michael Noonan said he "led the government which took the country out of the biggest crisis they've had in two generations, when we nearly slipped into bankruptcy".

All of which begs the question about why Fine Gael ministers, backbenchers and grassroots members are now hoping he will quietly and quickly leave it all behind.

The answer came from the Taoiseach's ally yesterday as he stepped down as British prime minister.

"I was the future once," David Cameron told the House of Commons, before getting a sustained round of applause. Mr Kenny's backers argue that his EU contacts mean he should stay for the next battle, but his meeting with Angela Merkel this week provided little by way of tangible commitments. But most think that after a mostly successful era he is battle-weary - and his days of electrifying Fine Gael are certainly over.

Irish Independent

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