Taoiseach's steely resolve shows he is no Lucky General
Since he became leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny has endured ferocious critcism. Sarah Carey asks, are the critics being fair?
Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30
I spend most of my time at the end of a cul de sac in Co Meath. So when I was swanning around Dublin 2 on Friday afternoon and bumped into Oliver Sears, I seized the chance to get an opinion from outside my own sub-group. I asked the well-read, Jewish art gallery owner what he thought of Enda Kenny. "It's funny you should ask," he replied. "He was at the Holocaust Memorial service in January. He spoke for 25 minutes. He was captivating and honest. He's an honest man. We all looked at each other and said; 'Where did this guy come from?'"
That precisely sums up the problem of Enda Kenny. Even after all this time, people who expect nothing are genuinely surprised to meet a man who resembles in no way the hesitant, oddly-mannered guy they see on the telly. He's sensitive and intelligent, full of empathy and with a deep sense of history.
Not only does this rarely come across when he's in front of a camera but members of the media, who meet him regularly, relentlessly reinforce the idea of an accidental Taoiseach, blithely ignoring his 40-year political career. When forced to acknowledge his economic achievements, they patronisingly declare him a "Lucky General". Fianna Failers are naturally bitter when reminded he's done a decent job cleaning up their mess. That, I can understand. But some commentators are deeply personal about his supposed failings and insist, "It's not Fine Gael that's the problem. It's Kenny." Personally, I think Fine Gael's problems are collective, not individual. I know there's something up with his public persona, but I just don't get the visceral reaction he provokes.
He's such a benign character in many ways. He's not corrupt like Charlie Haughey. His personal finances are orderly, unlike Bertie Ahern. He's not remotely ideological like, say, Michael McDowell. There's no privileged background to resent, like John Bruton.
It wasn't him who presided, sullen, hungover and withdrawn, as the country collapsed into financial chaos. That was Brian Cowen. His role was to stitch it back together under the baleful eye of the Troika, a task he assumed with upbeat pragmatism. You might think that's nothing much. But look at the paralysis of Greece and ask yourself what populist rhetoric and pointless resistance achieves.
Is it about time we asked: is the criticism fair?
The following questions may prove helpful in ascertaining one's capacity to answer that. Are you a journalist? Do you think style is as important, if not more important, than substance? Is it reasonable to blame your financial ills on one person, despite that individual's tangential connection to the causes of your predicament? Have you strong opinions on abortion? If the answer to any of the above is "yes", then I submit you're probably incapable of being objectively fair to the man. I know I'm not exactly objective when it comes to Fine Gael, but my baggage is transparent. The prejudices of others are not.
But I understand the journalists as much as I do the Fianna Failers. From the very start they wrote him off as an ineffectual lightweight, unfit for office. He wouldn't last. He couldn't last. He musn't last.
But he did last, thus proving them all wrong. It turned out that the hick from Mayo possessed a steely resolve and refused to let the constant criticism get to him. He's undoubtedly energetic and, in key moments, sensitive.
But it's not just the soft stuff. The Lucky General school ignores the exit from bailout, the stable management of the economy and the 8.6pc unemployment rate as mere coincidence. The oncoming storm of instability will give the lie to that narrative, so I'll let it go for now.
Instead, let's look at two domestic issues, independent from global influence: the Senate and abortion. As long as I've been politically sentient, media types have complained that the Taoiseach should use his Seanad powers of nomination to introduce "civic voices" and "experts" "from outside the political system" into the Senate.
Kenny did it, and not in mere tokenistic fashion. He nominated a wide range of non-politicians like Katherine Zappone, Fiach Mac Conghail, Marie-Louise O'Donnell, Jillian van Turnhout and Martin McAleese, who were no slaves to patronage.
That was a real breakthrough in our political culture. Do the critics ever give him credit for that?
No. Instead they propagate the myth that the referendum to abolish the Senate was something akin to an attempted political coup. Who'd know that almost 85pc of people in 2011 voted for parties that had proposed the abolition of the Seanad in their election manifestos?
Apparently the whole thing was a madcap escapade by the Taoiseach. With yet another Senate election upon us with a glut of failed TDs and celebrity commentators running for the right to declaim their opinions in the Blue Room for 60 grand a year, I've heard many lament that we didn't abolish the debating chamber when we had the chance.
Well, the Taoiseach who promised a democratic revolution gave us that chance and we said no. After that, who'd try anything radical again? He had one power in relation to the Senate and he did more than anyone else with it.
But the real issue that defines both Kenny's strengths and the churlishness of his critics is abortion. For 20 years every Taoiseach dodged the job of legislating for the X Case. But he pushed through the legislation in an atmosphere of what can only be described as intimidation from the pro-life lobby. Ironically, the commentariat now criticised him for his hardline approach to the whip. Gone were the lightweight remarks. Now he was too authoritarian!
Obviously, the pro-lifers resented him for it, but why no acknowledgement from the pro-choicers? Constitutionally, he did the most that could be done at a significant political cost both to himself and his party. But the commentariat with their virtue-signalling "Repeal the Eighth" branding on their Twitter accounts, condemn him as an antediluvian theocrat, determined to regulate the bodily functions of women.
They refuse to acknowledge the plain legal fact that the awful circumstances of fatal foetal abnormalities or rape victims cannot be dealt with without another referendum. That row - and it will be a row - is for another day.
None of this is to say that I think him flawless. While I wish he had the sheer likeability of Micheal Martin, I've been more bewildered by the curious disengagement from his ministers as disasters unfolded. Why did he stand back as James Reilly slowly imploded? How did we become the only country in the world to have forced installation of water meters? Why didn't he insist that Alan Shatter assume a more humble attitude as the policing crisis unfolded? And why, when it was repeatedly proven that in actual fact, Shatter had done nothing substantial wrong, did he dump him overboard, waving a copy of the Guerin report in his hand?
The result of this management failure was that Fine Gael lost three senior ministers. When the party's selling point had been that Kenny's weaknesses were compensated for by a competent team, it contributed to a perception of what Declan Lynch calls "eejitry".
There's no denying that Fine Gael had an awful election. Personally, I suspect that Olivia Mitchell's analysis that it was lost two years ago and not on the back of a bad slogan has more substance than much of the analysis. But I disagree with those who say that it was Kenny's, loss not Fine Gael's. The overwhelming sense that nothing had really changed is a matter of responsibility for everyone in that government, not him alone.
My own gut tells me we'll be voting again before too long and that may signal the end of his term as Taoiseach. This may have the ring of a eulogy about it, but that would be a mistake. Kenny has a few cards left to play and all we know for sure is that those who've underestimated him have always been wrong. Irrespective of what happens next, the only thing I can be certain of is that history, rightly, will be fairer to him than his critics are today.