Monday 22 December 2014

Can Enda dispel air of autocracy around him?

A leader who can't debate at a time when debate is becoming all the rage is fatally flawed, writes Brendan O'Connor

Published 13/10/2013 | 05:00

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to the media about the failure of the referendum to abolish the Seanad at Dublin Castle, yesterday.
Photo: Tony Gavin 5/10/2013
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to the media about the failure of the referendum to abolish the Seanad at Dublin Castle, yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin 5/10/2013

ENDA is no doubt hoping that last weekend's awkwardness will be forgotten quickly, that we can all move on and not mention the whole Seanad thing again. We'll have a bit of lip service to reform, find it's not really do-able, and we'll all forget it ever happened.

Already the focus has moved on to the fact the good times are rolling again. As Chauncey Gardner would say, "There will be growth in the spring." The ESRI has given growth and export predictions for next year that are far more optimistic than even the Government's predictions.

John Fitzgerald has the good grace to preface his predictions with the assurance that they are definitely wrong, but he is talking about GDP up by 2.6 per cent in 2014 (the Government says 1.8 per cent), and exports up 4.5 per cent (the Government is predicting less than half that). If there is a bit of growth internationally, the ESRI thinks we could be looking at 3 per cent growth next year. Unemployment has peaked and is going to go down to 12.6 per cent next year apparently. Indeed, Joan Burton says that in the coming weeks we will see it go below 400,000 for the first time since 2009. This will, of course, save us fortunes in social welfare money. In short, a rain is going to come and wash away all our problems.

And this is what the Coalition hoped for from the beginning. It would hang tough and implement the programme as agreed by Fianna Fail, and then, in the last year or two of its reign, the rising tide of international growth would lift our leaky little boat, it would take all the credit, there'd be a few generous budgets, all would be forgiven and it would sail back in with another massive majority in historic 2016.

All it had to do was make sure Enda didn't get exposed along the way. It had to make sure everyone forgot what they previously thought of Enda, and what many of his own senior party colleagues thought of him, and just keep him sufficiently under wraps and out of trouble.

Except it didn't manage to do that. Because Enda had a big idea, and he wrapped himself firmly around that big idea. And the big idea and he became intertwined as one. But no one really cared about the big idea. And when people did think about it they decided they didn't agree with Enda on it, and they weren't going to be told what to do by Enda.

The worst bit of it was that Enda couldn't even be trusted to come out and hold an intelligent conversation about his big idea. And that really didn't impress people.

Enda's people figured that Enda had done well at winning a general election, so they decided to treat the referendum on Enda's big idea like a general election. They came up with a couple of simple slogans – like 'save €20m' and 'have fewer politicians' – and they made posters. And they pushed these simple ideas that they thought would appeal to the masses; ideas, perhaps, they thought were simple enough for Enda to effectively convey. Ideas that he would not have to get into big discussions about.

The general election approach didn't quite work. Firstly because it emerged that one of the simple ideas seemed to be based on bogus figures, and secondly because people couldn't help thinking that if they wanted fewer politicians they might not want to start with the Seanad. So the simple ideas didn't really catch on.

The next problem was that on the other side of the argument there were some sophisticated, intelligent and articulate people, who seemed to be having an adult conversation. And it looked as if Enda's guys weren't letting him take part in this adult conversation. And that seeming inability to slug it out with the big boys left Enda even more damaged in ways than the fact that he lost the referendum.

There was such demand for Enda to have a proper debate, and he resisted it so much, that people began to think there must be something seriously wrong here. Why were his people so frightened to let him out? What was his dark secret?

And now it has been thrown into such focus, it will dog him for the rest of his days as leader. No matter how good things get. Enda is the guy who can't be let out to hold unscripted debates. Fine Gaelers complain that this is intellectual snobbery against Enda, but, in a way, they are the ones who have created the situation.

So what does Enda do now that all the suspicions people had about him before are back? Now, every time someone challenges him to

debate, and every time he refuses, it will make him look weaker and weaker. And once people smell that weakness, they will go for it. And then what if Enda's worst nightmare comes true and the new "Free Radical" party gets off the ground, with Lucinda backed up by populist if controversial sophisticates like McDowell, John Crown, Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly? These are all people who like a robust debate, and they will exploit this chink in Enda's armour relentlessly.

In fact, now it looks as if even Enda's own troops are being emboldened to attack again. The brooding Heathcliff that is John Deasy reared his head last week to have a savage go at Enda at a Fine Gael meeting, and it sounds like the best Enda could give him back was a personal attack that many present found a bit distasteful.

If the likes of Deasy and others, who have been away licking wounds and watching to see how things pan out, think the time is right to start attacking Enda again, things could spiral very quickly.

The bottom line is that a leader who can't debate, at a time when debate is becoming all the rage, is fatally flawed. Up to now, that leader's handlers have kept him as a moving target, flitting here and there, high-fiving and thumbs-upping, often on a bike. But Enda will ultimately disappear in a puff of smoke if that keeps up. He will evaporate politically while the adults have the hard conversations about substantial matters.

The only option would seem to be that Enda's guys need to train him to be able to appear in public, without a script, with a smart adversary. But then, they probably would have done that if they could by now. And surely to God they would have done it in time for him to be able to debate the big idea that was so associated with him personally.

The alternative is that he keeps running, keeps making glib comments about anyone who wants to debate him, and keeps making his adversaries look better and better. Like a boxing champ who won't fight any challengers.

And somehow, too, without facing people in any kind of unscripted or direct way, Enda has to dispel the air of autocracy and even petulance that has grown around him.

One thing that Enda Kenny always had going for him was that he seemed like a decent sort of person. Next to the shady boozers of Fianna Fail lore, he was a clean-cut guy, keener on fresh air than smoke-filled rooms. But that myth has now been dispelled. Things have taken a sour turn between Enda and the people, and Enda's handlers' options on how to fix it are very limited. And it's a long way to the next election. Enda is strikingly fit for his age so, while he will no doubt be able to keep running, there is increasingly nowhere for him to hide.

Sunday Independent

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