Saturday 16 December 2017

The F-Factor

It was April 2007 and Enda Kenny was blazing a swift canvass trail across Co Meath as the general election gathered pace. In one village he met a woman walking her dog.

He asked, as politicians do, what was the dog's name. "Charlie," the woman replied with a smile.

Enda was delighted, and a big grin broke over his face. "Well now, I want you to meet the original Charlie's Angel," he said, pointing to his wife, Fionnuala.

The TV Charlie's Angels were beautiful women who would trouble-shoot for their boss. Fionnuala O'Kelly has a similar reputation.

She was Charlie Haughey's glamorous and talented Fianna Fail press officer and later head of Government Information Services, all during the Fianna Fail upheavals of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Now she is Taoiseach Enda Kenny's wife, political adviser, image-setter, cook, child-carer and best friend.

She gave up her high-flying career to bring up their children in 1997, the year Enda returned to the back benches after Fine Gael's Rainbow Coalition was defeated by Bertie Ahern's rejuvenated Fianna Fail.

One friend said: "Some people felt at that time that she had sacrificed a better future than Enda ever had in front of him."

It was five years away from Enda Kenny declaring his intention to lead Fine Gael and his bid to become Taoiseach. In 1997 there was no hint of such ambition. And many believe it was the feisty Fionnuala who gave him the confidence to step up to the plate.

So who is this driven woman who is so influential -- but resolutely stays in the background?

Fionnuala O'Kelly, who is almost six years younger than her husband, grew up in Blackheath Avenue in the prosperous and confident Dublin suburb of Clontarf. Her mother was Eileen O'Hanrahan, a Dubliner who worked as a civil servant until forced to resign on marriage -- according to the regulation in force at that time.

Fionnuala's father, Sean, was also a civil servant, from the townland of Knockataggle, just five miles from Killarney where his brother had continued to run the family farm. He was very successful in his job and rose to be secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.

Fionnuala was the third in a family of seven, five girls and two boys. All were part of the link with Kerry, enjoying long, summer holidays in a house retained by their father at Knockataggle. Fionnuala and Enda have kept up the link, holidaying there each summer for the past 20 years.

She answered an anonymous newspaper advert in the summer of 1981, placed by a "national organisation" based in the Dublin 2 area. Fionnuala O'Kelly was fresh from college with an MA in French and a diploma in European studies.

The advert turned out to be for Fianna Fail, who were seeking a press officer. Although she was aged 25, it was her first real job and, by her own version of events, she knew nothing much about party politics.

Fionnuala learned very quickly, and was soon working closely with some of the gurus in the trade, notably PJ Mara, Charlie Haughey's press officer, and then Charlie himself.

Her debut in the engine room of Ireland's biggest political organisation was a complete baptism of fire. In the year after she joined Fianna Fail, there were two quick-fire general elections, one of which Charlie Haughey won and unseated Fine Gael-Labour; in the other, Garret FitzGerald ousted Haughey. She also served through the June 1985 local elections, the February 1987 general election and the June 1989 general election campaign.

But what really characterised the politics early in that period was the three vicious internal heaves against Haughey's leadership of Fianna Fail.

"In nine years she saw as much raw, gut politics close up as many a veteran politician would see in a lifetime. Those lessons she learned were invaluable when it came to helping her husband, especially helping him to fend off a leadership heave years later," one former colleague summed up.

She has many times spoken in public of Haughey's professional and personal kindness, and she joined her husband, who was by then Fine Gael leader, at her old boss's burial in St Fintan's Cemetery in Sutton in June 2006.

"I was genuinely very fond of him and of his family," she later recalled.

Her husband likes to point out that she was among the few to stand up to Charlie Haughey. Enda has also told how Fionnuala once threw a file at Haughey after one of his celebrated outbursts -- and eventually got an apology from him, a very rare occurrence.

Enda was unexpectedly struck by Cupid's arrow in the most unlikely place: the chamber of Dail Eireann.

"I was in the Dail chamber one day, doing my constitutional duty, standing up and speaking about something or other, and I saw this apparition on the press gallery, dressed in blue with long chestnut hair, and I said to myself: 'Jesus, who is she?'

"I was in a considerable state of anxiety for some time afterwards -- and here we are," Enda said more than 25 years later, going from dramatic love at first sight to fast-forward into long-time marriage.

The "apparition" was Fionnuala O'Kelly, Charlie Haughey's new party press officer.

Enda Kenny had fallen for one of the 'enemy'.

But it would take the two of them 10 more years to make it to the altar after an on-off courtship which they believed was largely clandestine.

The need for secretiveness did add spice to things early on. "It was almost like an affair except no one else was involved. Of course, I thought it was a great secret. But it was the worst-kept secret in the country at the time," Fionnuala recalled later.

Eventually, in the summer of 1990, Enda proposed marriage, going down on one knee on a windswept shore on Inisheer, the most westerly of the Aran Islands, where they were on a short holiday

Fionnuala had just taken up a new job as head of public relations for RTE. But marriage was delayed until January 3, 1992, due to the illness and death of Fionnuala's mother. After the birth of their three children, Fionnuala took the difficult decision in early 1997 to give up work and move the family entirely to Castlebar. A dozen years later she publicly admitted the difficulties associated with the decision.

"If my mother had still been alive, I don't know if I could have done it. She was a woman who had to give up her job and made such sacrifices to put the seven of us through education. And there was guilt -- I felt I was letting womankind down," she said.

The Kenny family home in Castlebar is on the edge of a golf course. It is a comfortable, lived-in, two-storey house which has been decorated to Fionnuala's taste, honed by her taking a course in interior design.

For quite some time she missed not having an inside track on the running story of the day. During her time at Leinster House and RTE, friends would often ring her to ask what the "real story" was -- but in Mayo that just stopped dead.

"All of a sudden I had to wait for him to come home -- and he's just no good at gossip," she recalled ruefully.

The children did most of their growing up in the decade after her husband was elected Fine Gael leader in June 2002. This involved considerable absence from home and left the bulk of day-to-day parenting duties to their mother.

By autumn 2012 their daughter, Aoibheann, had completed her first year at college; their second child, Ferdia, had sat his Leaving Certificate; and their youngest, Naoise, is in the final years of secondary school.

Their father has tried to compensate for considerable absences over the years by ensuring he spoke to them by phone every morning and evening and trying, where possible, to keep Sunday free for family activities.

But public life places significant demands on family life. Both Enda Kenny and Fionnuala O'Kelly agree the absences and planned compensations cast him as "fun Daddy" -- leaving her the primary role of "laying down the law". Both agreed, and totally lived up to, a pledge to keep their children out of the limelight.

She says he occasionally tries to do things about the house, with not very good results. But cooking is not his forte.

"Cinderised sausages are about the height of his cuisine," she remarked.

In autumn 2011 -- weeks after Enda had totally stymied a plot by the majority of his key Fine Gael lieutenants to ditch him as leader -- Fionnuala spelled out her feelings to a friend.

"We have just put much too much into all of this to give up now," she said.

The comment again raises the oft-discussed issue: how much is Enda's wife the real power behind the throne? Has she been a major factor -- perhaps the factor -- in propelling him into Government Buildings as Taoiseach?

It is no surprise that she brushes aside any such suggestion.

"The role I play is that I let him be out there. I make sure that he doesn't have to worry about us and that he could concentrate on what he is doing," she told TV3 in April 2007.

Around that time she even took over his one constant home chore of grass-cutting to ease the pressure on her husband.

Enda insists that without her understanding of politics and its huge time demands he could not succeed.

But for many close to Enda and Fine Gael, Fionnuala is far more than the person who keeps the home fires burning and facilitates her husband's round-the-clock political involvement.

For many friends and associates, Enda's relationship with her has seen him transform himself from a happy-go-lucky backbench TD with the potential to perhaps be a middle-ranking minister. With her help and encouragement he has, over time, changed his attitude and sharpened his focus to become party leader and Taoiseach.

"Fionnuala is, without doubt, his best political adviser -- not in routine or everyday matters," one friend summed up.

"She has a long-term view and she understands the game of politics."

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