Tuesday 27 September 2016

Making a journalistic mountain out of a political molehill

The speculation about Enda Kenny's future is the kind of thing we invent to amuse one another in the silly season

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

'To the older members of the Fine Gael front bench, Varadkar (pictured) and Coveney are more like edgy young radicals'
'To the older members of the Fine Gael front bench, Varadkar (pictured) and Coveney are more like edgy young radicals'

We like our little political dramas. Now and then, our politicians and the media create an eruption of amateur theatrics. So, when one of Enda Kenny's underlings made a remark about how long Enda intends to remain leader of Fine Gael, well - we couldn't resist making a fuss.

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It is, after all, the silly season.

The politicians are away on holidays. Even their PR people, advisers and consultants are short of any worthwhile political gossip to feed the media machine.

The remark that caused the fuss? If re-elected, Mr Kenny's underling said, the Taoiseach will "serve another five years and more".

That was enough to generate a drama. The media got out its catechism of cliche. Is Enda really planning to still be Taoiseach 10 years from now? Is he doing a Maggie Thatcher, promising to go on and on and on and on? Is he doing a Charlie Haughey, threatening to stick around like one of those Chinese leaders whose faces eventually turn into one big wrinkle?

It's the kind of wee yarn that passes for a political development in a country in which our politics make up in drama what they lack in seriousness.

The story has Enda - he may not be your cup of tea, but he is Taoiseach, so we have to pretend it matters. In addition, the story encompasses not just the next general election but the one after. It dashes the hopes of would-be leaders Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. And, if you throw in a suitable snap of Enda looking imperious, it's got a hint of arrogance and a dash of hubris.

But, I hear you ask, what did Enda actually say?

Eh, nothing.

Not a dicky-bird.

Not a single syllable.

Enda, as far as we know, was off watering his grassroots, as all obsessive politicians do when there's an election in the offing.

It started when Paul Kehoe, Fine Gael's chief whip, gave the Irish Examiner a few sentences - the most significant of which was his claim that Fine Gael will enter a voting pact with Labour. That had the makings of a minor political kerfuffle, but it wasn't what hit the headlines.

It was a casual remark that generated the fuss. Mr Kehoe was asked if Enda will remain leader of Fine Gael throughout the five years of the next Dail.

Now, if you're Enda's enforcer and you're asked that question, you have to say he will, of course.

If you don't say that emphatically, it will give the media a licence to indulge in will-Enda-resign-after-the-election speculation. ("Fine Gael insider Paul Kehoe today refused to rule out the possibility that Enda Kenny will resign after the general election").

So Kehoe said that if he becomes Taoiseach after the election, Mr Kenny "will serve another five years . . ."

There really wasn't anything else Kehoe could say other than that Enda will see out the full term - which is pretty much what you'd expect Kenny to do.

And then, to avoid speculation that he meant that Kenny will resign at or before the election after next, Kehoe made the sentence open-ended, with the addition of two golden words: "...and more".

They were the two golden words that made a journalistic mountain out of a political molehill: "...and more".

Those two words potentially take Kenny past 2021 and into the vastness of the 2020s.

Cue a blare of headlines and a cogitation of think pieces.

The headlines enflamed the two golden words and made of them an escalating news event: "Enda Kenny wants to be Taoiseach after 2021 General Election"; "Enda Kenny intends to be Taoiseach in 2021"; "Kenny 'planning' to lead as Taoiseach into 2020s". The headlines took the story from "wants" to "intends" to a claim that Mr Kenny is actively "planning" what he'll be doing in 2022. And all based on the two golden words that Mr Kenny himself did not utter.

Radio wanted a slice of the story, which gave Paul Kehoe the chance to go on RTE and expand on his hopes that Mr Kenny will become a "very long-term Taoiseach", given his leader's "abundance of energy and an appetite for leading this country".

When nothing has happened and one is inflating a non-story, there's no reason why you can't do yourself some good by giving your leader and his abundance of energy a quick kiss on the backside. Should Mr Kenny retain his office there will, of course, be a new cabinet - and like all minor functionaries, Mr Kehoe has his hopes.

Predictably, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein joined in, denouncing Mr Kenny's "arrogance", even though the poor chap still hadn't said a word on the subject.

This utterly unremarkable remark became one of the major political stories of the week - in a country in which the public health service is visibly falling apart. Throughout the speculation, there wasn't one sentence to suggest that there's the slightest political difference between Kenny and anyone who might replace him.

In his original interview with the Irish Examiner, Paul Kehoe had a lash at the two Fine Gaelers widely seen as potential leaders - Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. They're not the only ones who might have a shot at the leadership, he suggested. There are others - a reference to Frances Fitzgerald.

To the rest of us, Varadkar and Coveney may be personable chaps, irretrievably lost to the right-wing politics that dominated their backgrounds - children of the age of Thatcher. To the older members of the Fine Gael front bench, Varadkar and Coveney are more like edgy young radicals.

The average age of De Valera's 1951 cabinet was 57. By 1973, the average age had been brought down to 48, better reflecting the norm of the population. It stayed like that until 2011. Enda Kenny's cabinet brought the average age back up to 56 - the level it's still at. Frances Fitzgerald, groomed and favoured by the party establishment, is slightly older than Enda. If, as Paul Kehoe suggests, Mr Kenny hangs on until 2021, FitzGerald will be 70 when there's a leadership vacancy.

The truth, of course, is that there's nothing political at all about any of this. It's all personality stuff. And low level, dull personality stuff. And somewhat melancholy, when you think of it. Enda Kenny spent 36 years in the Dail, largely anonymous and unproductive, until he became Taoiseach in 2011. He's had the Big Job for less than five years - it must be truly hard to contemplate leaving it.

Sunday Independent

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