Thursday 29 September 2016

Shrugging against the dying of the light: A horror week for dead-eyed Enda

Kenny may seem to have wearily checked out, but his determination to avoid retirement runs deep, writes Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

HANGING IN THERE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo by Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images
HANGING IN THERE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo by Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images

Enda Kenny's lips move, but his eyes are dead. At Leaders' Questions on Wednesday, Mick Wallace furiously aired his latest conspiracy theories, to predictable squawks of "Order!", following which Kenny doused the Independent TD's pugilism with the dry dispassion of a speaking clock.

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There was no jocular point-scoring. No ducking and weaving. No clucks of incredulity from the Government bench. Just a dry recounting of facts and previously stated positions.

Pretenders to the Fine Gael crown; Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar. Photo: Arthur Carron
Pretenders to the Fine Gael crown; Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar. Photo: Arthur Carron

The Taoiseach looked weary, spent, emotionally wrung-out. He seems to be less raging at the dying of the light, than shrugging. "Don't worry," the longest-serving TD in the Dail seemed to be saying as he looked around the chamber. "You are all in the will."

At this point in the chronology of a career, a political leader might be expected to move with a little more rat-in-the-corner-of-the-barn urgency. Bertie brazenly and bullishly held on. Haughey's corpse struggled slightly, you imagine, even as the mortician applied the pan stik. But neither the whispers against Enda, the public climb-downs, nor the media deathwatch, ever seem to add up to enough to bring forth any particular combativeness on the Taoiseach's part.

This is surprising in one way. The polls are worrying for his party - Fianna Fail have jumped to 33pc, the highest level they've had enjoyed since 2009. And, since the wipe-out of Labour in the election, and the consequent loss of the government majority, his position has looked precarious.

There are mutterings about his tenability as leader as high as Cabinet but crucially the pretenders to the throne seem to have no appetite for a heave. Lonely squeaks of no confidence, like those from Kerry TD Brendan Griffin last week, are only irritants until they gather to a public chorus.

Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Frank McGrath
Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Frank McGrath

And it's probably difficult to fully buy into the notion that you're a sinking ship when even the rats are returning - Lucinda Creighton made her big U-turn this week, in backing him.

But Enda's unnervingly glazed-over expression perturbs us because the waters feel so choppy. Is someone, who seems to be staggering to the finish line, looking spent, a truly invested emissary in an outer world of bombs and Brexit? (Noonan shrugged when asked about the effect of Brexit on Ireland this week, saying that it could take four years to take effect - "long after we're gone" seemed to be the clear subtext).

Can Kenny pivot from japes with the Dulux dog in London to S&M-style begging in Berlin? There are signs that give us the yips on this score: He had his choke chain yanked last week by Angela Merkel, who on Tuesday declined to make Ireland a "special case" in the post-Brexit negotiations; the public dressing down by DUP leader Arlene Foster for not telling her about an All-Ireland Forum (which she probably would have rejected anyway).

Then there was the baffling and ill-advised appointment of James Reilly to his old job as deputy leader, which provoked fury at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Thursday, two days after his zoned out Leaders' Questions. What could he owe Reilly that would necessitate such an about-turn? The mind boggled.

The controversy over the Independent Alliance ministers' insistence on a free vote on Mick Wallace's Private Members' Bill allowing for abortion in situations of fatal foetal abnormality showed the precariousness of the Taoiseach's position in the current Government.

And the impression was one of a leader lurching from crisis to crisis.

Throughout it all, Kenny doesn't furiously grapple like future scriptwriters might wish, but he does dig in resolutely. His motivation for this probably springs partly from that point where self-interest and what he perceives as patriotism intersect - how could he hand the reins over to this particular opposition?

The country needs a safe pair of hands, and those are his. After all, he could argue, he inherited the greatest economic crisis imaginable. There seemed to be a genuine possibility, then, that the government wouldn't be able to pay its bills before the end of the year. He steered us out of that to our current period of growth, which while not as preposterous as was claimed this week in the official figures, is likely to be respectable. He may think he has earned one last run.

Enda spent an inordinate amount of time as opposition leader. He lost an election, in 2007, which seemed Fine Gael's for the taking. There was a sense, then, that he was just not meant to be Taoiseach. He lacked the kind sulphurous charisma we love in a leader. He was a dry, unengaging debater. He was dismissed as a lightweight. There must be a powerful memory of those years.

And all the sweeter, then, for Kenny to become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected. The little fist pump, as he left the Aras in May, was a rare flash of demonstrativeness.

Like a stopped clock, the deathwatch will be right sooner or later, but Kenny has form in fending off what looks like the impending end. In March, The Sunday Times was reporting Fianna Fáil was demanding Kenny's head in return for a grand coalition. Shane Ross described him then as a political corpse.

At Easter it was said that, if he was re-elected Taoiseach, he would have to step down within weeks, or months. Since then, we've frequently seen headlines predicting he'll go. And still he hangs on.

It's personal as well. He comes from a political dynasty that is now seven decades old and when he goes it will really be over - he has a brother who is a councillor but no other TD in the family.

He may feel the burden of family history, too. He was just three when his father, Henry Kenny, first won a Dail seat for Fine Gael in 1954. Enda reluctantly inherited his father's seat in 1975 but all these decades later politics has been his life.

TDs this week called for Kenny to put a timetable on his retirement. His refusal to do so is understandable. He comes from a generation of Irish civil servants who were very often forced to retire before their time, just as they were reinventing what we thought of as old age as a kind of middle age. Perhaps one of the perks of office is not being badgered into doing this. Kenny has said he will spend one more term as Taoiseach and resign if Fine Gael retain power.

Part of that will involve shoring up support in the heartland. Kenny was back home in Mayo twice this week, first at the sod-turning for the new extension of the Sacred Heart Hospital in Castlebar on Monday, where he declared that he had "no intention of being diverted from (his) work", and then, at the end of the week, travelling back to Mayo to attend the opening of a franchise office for a chain of old folks homes.

In the pictures, for the first time this week, he appeared energised and engaged. Perhaps it was because the setting seemed so apt.

"I'll cut the ribbon," the gleam in his eyes seemed to say. "But don't think you're sticking me in here just yet."

Read more: Fianna Fail in poll boost as pressure mounts on minority government

Timeline of Fine Gael storm

Monday July 4: In first blow for Taoiseach, Northern Ireland First Minister rejects a plan for an all-island forum to tackle Brexit.

Wednesday July 6: Questions are raised about Kenny's continuing leadership at Fine Gael's parliamentary party meeting. One item raised is his decision to allow Independent Alliance ministers a free vote on an abortion Bill. Kenny also announces that Dr James Reilly has been reappointed deputy leader, to the consternation of some TDs.

Saturday July 9: While senior figures including Leo Varadkar and Frances Fitzgerald publicly back Mr Kenny, reports emerge that some backbench TDs are considering formally challenging Kenny's leadership. Varadkar is in contact with TDs, urging them not to move against Kenny.

Monday July 11: Kerry TD Brendan Griffin (above) calls for a change of leader during the summer recess. The Taoiseach comments for the first time on the furore, saying he has "no intention" of being diverted from his work.

Wednesday July 13: Kenny speaks at the parliamentary party calling for unity and promising to meet TDs that criticised him. No motion challenging his leadership is tabled and he receives a round of applause. Leadership questions begin to fizzle out.

Sunday Independent

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