Saturday 1 October 2016

Defeated and gutted: how Kenny shaped the future on a bleak day in Castlebar

Published 08/03/2014 | 02:30

Enda and Fionnula Kenny
Enda and Fionnula Kenny

It was May 2007, the weather was balmy, the economic climate was in a state of blissful stillness before the approaching storms, and the general election campaign was in full swing.

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Up and down the streets, boreens and housing estates of the 26 counties, voters suddenly found their hands being shaken energetically, their babies kissed, their small children high-fived by a smiling, sandy-haired fella eager to chat.

Some of them recognised Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael and wannabe Taoiseach, but many did not. Despite the fact that he had been around Dáil Éireann for over two decades and had been leader of the party for five years since its catastrophic result in the previous election in 2002, the Mayoman hadn't intruded much upon the public consciousness.

Firstly, as leader of the opposition, he had been nigh-invisible sitting opposite the charismatic Bertie Ahern who at the time of the 2007 election was coming under intense scrutiny via the Mahon Tribunal. And in the Dáil some months after this election, then Finance Minister Brian Cowen cruelly responded to Enda's criticism of the tribunal by sneering that he was "neither qualified nor able to evaluate that evidence".

It was a savage put-down. But it echoed what many voters thought and explained why the electorate returned Fianna Fáil and Bertie to power for a third term – they just weren't convinced that Enda Kenny was up to the job of running the country.

Despite his longevity in politics, he had held just one ministerial portfolio (Tourism and Trade) for two-and-a-half years. Nobody knew very much about the measure of the man.

But the 2007 election marked the beginning of the getting-to-know-you process. And during the month-long campaign, it was becoming clearer that there were two Enda Kennys.

There was the energetic, sociable soul who genuinely enjoyed meeting people. No photo-opp was too daft for him – at the click of a shutter, he'd don a hard-hat, paint a wall, drive a digger, all the while throwing torturous quips in the direction of the media. It quickly became clear that he possessed the likeability factor.

Then there was the other Enda – the one who wilted under tough questioning, who didn't seem to be able to think on his feet and who was a bit woolly on economic matters.

It seemed inevitable when the vastly experienced and confident Bertie trounced him in the televised leaders' debate during the campaign.

Time and again out on the 2007 hustings he was asked about his ability to lead the country. Once during an informal chat on the trail with this journalist, he pointed out: "When Bertie Ahern was leader of the opposition, a large section of the media said that this man will never make it to Taoiseach, he just wouldn't shape up. And they said that for the first two years of his leadership, and then he became popular and it stopped," he said.

"I think what people underestimate is the capacity of the aura of government to surround a person, and the extent of the organisation that backs that person up."

Most of all in 2007 what people underestimated was Enda Kenny's desire to succeed and to silence the nay-sayers.

In the final hours of May 25, as the votes were counted and victory ebbed from his grasp, he couldn't even hide his devastation in the counting-centre in Castlebar.

He was gutted ... and it showed.

But he dusted himself down and started again. For that's what ambitious men do.

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