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Saturday 20 September 2014

John Drennan: How 'Bertie Lite' Enda is our perfect cheerleader

The 'accidental' Taoiseach's weaknesses are actually hidden strengths, writes John Drennan

Published 19/02/2012 | 05:00

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The measure of how swiftly things change in politics was captured by the respective performances of Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton at the Government's Jobs Initiative launch.

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This might have been the gig of Richard 'Who?' but as Bruton faded into the wallpaper like an Irish John Major, Fine Gael's new sun king dominated proceedings.

Few would have expected, even at the wake that followed the aborted coup of the aristocrats, that Bruton would evolve into the ghostly version of William Hughes Mearns' famous "little man who wasn't there". But, even for his own misguided supporters, the dilettante don has evolved into a case of "Yesterday upon a stair, I met a man who wasn't there, He wasn't there again today, I wish, I wish he'd go away".

In contrast, the transformation of Enda into something that increasingly resembles Bertie Ahern is so complete, we even see photographs of Enda beside Paidi O Se at a launch, with Paidi smiling in a way that would leave you thinking a FF, as distinct to a blueshirt Taoiseach, was whacking him on the back.

Suggesting Enda might be the new Bertie is not something that would be received with great warmth in blueshirt circles.

Even before the tide went out on Mr Ahern over that unfortunate national bankruptcy stuff, if Fine Gael was more sensitive about any issue than the multitude of issues about which they are always sensitive, it was the marketing of Enda Kenny as a sort of Bertie Lite.

A perennially unsuccessful party may have decided that if they couldn't beat Fianna Fail, its only option was to create a weaker version of the same currency. But Fine Gael never liked seeing the plan being pointed out in opposition and the party hates it even more in Government.

The party would, however, be wise to realise that being like Bertie may not be quite as insulting as they think.

Should you look back at Mr Ahern's first year in office the now reviled former Taoiseach had concluded the admittedly imperfect Good Friday Agreement while few complained when Charlie McCreevy unveiled the biggest tax-cutting budget in the history of the State.

In a strange way, it was the absence of Bertie being Bertie that facilitated our descent into this abyss. The silken threads that high office weaves created a cocoon that separated him from the voters, whilst the intricacies of Mahon diverted his attentions to such an extent that an addled Taoiseach simply did not see the coming Apocalyptic Horsemen of benchmarking and the collapse of the housing boom that brought the country and his party down around his feet.

Mr Kenny's achievements are somewhat more speckled, but, unlike Mr Ahern who took over a thriving small farm, Enda Kenny did inherit a dustbowl.

Some of the similarities between Bertie and the new Bertie Lite are simple enough, for just as Bertie specialised, when under pressure, in inventing malapropisms, Enda's favourite diversionary tactic is the erraticism.

Mind you, even Bertie, in his Jude the Obscure mode, would have struggled to match the Cantona-style observation by Enda that, asking how many real jobs would be created by the, er, jobs plan was like asking "how many seagulls flew over the Phoenix Park?".

Other similarities are more subtle, for the curious thing about being Taoiseach is that there is no specific job description for the role. If you are a Minister for Finance, or the Environment or Education, you know what your tasks actually are. When you are Taoiseach, however, outside of the rather technical 'Chairman or Chief' dilemma, your desk is an empty space.

Even an experienced politician such as Lemass found the isolation of a job that is defined by your own personality rather than orders from a 'Chief' to be initially dislocating while poor Brian Cowen literally drowned under the absence of any structure.

In contrast, there is a growing sense that, like Bertie, a political chameleon such as Kenny is suited to the inchoate nature of what it is that the Taoiseach should actually do.

And better still, so long as Kenny remains aware of them, in a strange way the Taoiseach's regularly touted weaknesses are hidden strengths.

You see, we and Mr Kenny (except for those dangerous occasions when he is in Master of the Universe mode) know that Enda is not particularly good at doing concrete things. Unlike 'clever' little chaps such as Richard, he is simply not designed to be interpreting flow charts or engaging in comparative statistical analyses; whatever any of those things actually are.

However, like Bertie, during the Dr Jekyll period, the unique genius of Enda is that, if he doesn't get diverted by the complicated stuff, he is perfectly qualified to engage in the critical task of raising the national spirit.

Mr Kenny may not say "the hardy man working hard" to every individual he sees but he does appear to have adopted Mr Ahern's view that the most critical role of a Taoiseach is to act as a national and international cheerleader.

It is perhaps easy to mock such an objective, but can anyone deny that repairing the international image of a state that is dangerously dependent on the kindness of suspicious strangers is of critical import after the frankly embarrassing figure which Mr Cowen cut on the world stage.

During the ill-fated leadership coup -- and how ridiculous does the prospect of Richard 'the Minister who isn't there' Bruton as Taoiseach now appear -- Leo Varadkar famously observed that Mr Kenny would be an excellent Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Leo may regret his diagnosis now, but, in a strange way the Taoiseach is a de facto Minister for Foreign Affairs, for if we are to not become Greece, this indigent State must impress outside powers, with the portrayal at least, of vigour, confidence and enthusiasm.

Happily, like Mr Ahern, and utterly unlike Mr Cowen, Mr Kenny, for reasons that are often mysterious to us, is respected in Davos and America while even Mr Sarkozy has replaced Gallic spats with patronising horseplay.

One explanation for the difference may be that while 'Enda' arrives to these places all fresh and newly minted, at home 'Kenny' comes with the baggage of that three decade-long 'lightly raced' phase of his passive initial spell in politics.

But, perhaps, in the sanguine but determined Mr Kenny's case, it might do us no harm to follow the advice of the poet Burns and see Enda as others do.

The leader of any peripheral bankrupt state can do little enough in what is a dangerous, self-interested, and increasingly fissiparous world but Enda can do the spirit-of-the-nation stuff and after three years of governance by a depressive vacuum, no one doubts our national ego needs healing.

Given that Enda is in so many respects the unplanned Taoiseach, rescuing the Republic might appear to be a big ask, for it would be cruel, but not unfair to say that most of the Cabinet and a dozen of his own backbenchers are technically smarter.

But, success in politics and national leadership are all about character and our 'accidental' Taoiseach's core quality is that well-disguised grim determination which those who are ambitious and egotistical, but not immensely talented, need to succeed.

A moderately qualified Nort'side politician who paid his FG doppelganger the compliment of genuine dislike would know all about the importance of such traits.

No one ever thought it at the time, but Enda's apprenticeship in leading the psychologically distraught FG of 2002 has been the perfect training for the defiant cajoling, enthusing, nodding and joking that is needed if he is to fulfil his self-proclaimed objective of state-building.

And in a strange way courting voters at 3am in small deserted villages in opposition is no bad apprenticeship for hanging in there after midnight at EU summits with a rampant Nicolas Sarkozy whilst the Greek guy with the loose tie starts to fall asleep.

More intelligent men might wither at the challenges we face. But, as we saw all too clearly when it came to that figurehead of a bloated Celtic Tiger which was raddled by excess and fit for no purpose, intelligence in a time of war is more of a vice than a virtue.

In contrast, though he may not like being called Lite; in the absence of anything better, the lightness of Enda may well be the least worst option for the Taoiseach's office. But, perhaps Bertie would be a better judge of that than us!

Sunday Independent

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