Wednesday 17 January 2018

Kenny rose without trace and could now sink with a stroke

Enda Kenny is asking the Irish people to believe in fantastical coincidences. Is this the 'New Politics' which he promised to usher in?

Heather Humphreys
Heather Humphreys

Eilis O'Hanlon

Enda Kenny is a classic example of a man promoted far beyond his abilities who then makes the mistake of believing that success is his by right.

Even that wouldn't be so bad if, recognising his luck, he'd grown to fill his new role. Instead, he increasingly resembles an X Factor wannabe who, after a few hit records, is suddenly blagging his way into clubs at 3am, demanding: "Do you know who I am?"

What Enda doesn't seem to get is that we do know who, and what, he is. The real question is: Does he?

One answer to that came last week in the wake of criticism over Fine Gael's handling of the appointment of failed by-election candidate John McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and then to the candidacy for the vacant Seanad seat. Faced with the great unwashed demanding answers to why decisions were made, Kenny declared: "I am the Taoiseach." As if perhaps we needed reminding. Or putting in our place. Enda has wrapped himself up in the trappings of exalted rank to such an extent that it seems almost an impertinence to him when he's required to explain himself.

The problem with men like this is that they have no appreciation of the damage they do to those around them. The Taoiseach's cack-handed response to this mess has, not least, put the skids under culture minister Heather Humphreys. Few had heard of the woman before last week, but they've noticed her now, and it's all for negative reasons which it will be hard for her to shake off.

In declaring that it was basically her decision alone to appoint McNulty to the board of IMMA, and that he, and by implication the party leadership, had nothing to do with it, Enda left her with no other option than to deny that the move was part of a broader strategy to advance McNulty's interests.

Essentially the story was that she decided, independently and unilaterally, to appoint McNulty, out of all the available candidates, and that, within days, the Taoiseach also decided, independently and unilaterally, to pick McNulty for the Seanad - and that these two events were entirely unrelated.

This either made McNulty the luckiest man in Ireland, or meant that some Machiavellian genius within FG, who was looking out for McNulty, and knew that he needed to have his CV vajazzled with some shiny cultural sequins if he was to impress the Seanad's Cultural and Education Panel, managed secretly to influence the decision of the minister and the Taoiseach, without either of them being aware of what was happening, then or since.

If it looks like coordination, waddles like coordination, and stinks like coordination, then most observers would conclude that we're probably looking at coordination. That's why no one, inside or outside, believed a word of it, and why the Taoiseach was forced into making a new statement on Friday, taking full responsibility for the debacle and promising a whole raft of reforms to ensure this didn't happen again, in the hope that this would quiet the gathering storm.

Some hope. As climbdowns go, it was spectacular. Gone was the bullish autocrat batting away impertinent inquisitors. In its place, a humbler, softly-spoken Taoiseach, answering questions with a greater degree of patience than we've come to expect. Kenny looked rattled. But there were still no answers.

The issues here are ones of fact not interpretation, and will either be confirmed or disproved by further information. Either the party had a deliberate strategy to advance McNulty's interests, or these events were pure coincidence. There is no middle ground. So is the Taoiseach now admitting there was such a strategy, and that McNulty's appointment to IMMA was part of that? Is he admitting that Humphreys did indeed receive instructions from higher up? If not, then what was he apologising for?

Without more details, it's hard to make any firm conclusions, but unless Enda Kenny is a better actor than we thought, he did look very much like a man blindsided by events that he still isn't fully understanding. In that respect, it may not be irrelevant that the story broke when he was in New York for the UN Leaders' Conference.

Politicians are notoriously bad at reading the signals in their own party when overseas. Thatcher was in Paris when the result of the first leadership ballot came out in 1992. She vowed to fight on. Within hours, she'd been persuaded by cooler heads back home that she had to go. It often happens that the small overlooked things are the ones which eventually trip up a leader. In the US, sorting out global warming, a row over some piffling Seanad seat may have looked barely worth bothering about.

Even on his return, he seemed to be misinterpreting the signs. Early reports concentrated on the fact that three women, who'd been on the shortlist for the Seanad nomination since the summer, had been passed over for a candidate with more testosterone. Enda instantly went on the attack, insisting "they can't all be winners". Because of course, nothing calms a woman down more than having it implied that she is basically being pushy and unreasonable.

In normal circumstances, this might have bought Enda some time; but the story was moving swiftly, and the issue of gender was becoming less important than that of cronyism. What happened to the three women was grubby stuff, but it wouldn't essentially matter if McNulty was called Joanna instead of John. The core of the shambles would remain the same.

Politicians have always used the boards of this or that as a form of patronage, or as an apprenticeship for the favoured few; and that goes for all parties, Labour included. But the point is that this apparatus of cronyism was supposed to have been dismantled in favour of openness, transparency. "Anything that Michael Martin says I take it with a grain of salt," Enda declared at the Ploughing Championships, but "you did it too" is hardly a defence if your whole selling point was that you wouldn't do it at all.

He still seems to think that cronyism is a deficiency unique to FF, as if it's in their DNA, and FG could therefore, by definition, not be guilty of it, whereas the only reason it became closely associated with FF is because that party was in power longest and had the most favours to repay and the most ambitious egos to mollify. The wonder is that FG and Labour learned those same lessons so quickly.

In 2012, Enda Kenny gave an address at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, insisting that "responsibility", "ethics" and "probity" had become "alien" words, adding: "We must restore those exiled and disregarded qualities... to our public and our national life"

Ireland, Kenny said, needed a "New Politics", because "we cannot fix our economy or create a just society unless and until we also fix our politics." Most tellingly: "Public trust is a fragile and precious commodity". You said it, Taoiseach.

That's why the most profound words that day were not in the text at all. They were added to the top of transcripts of the speech sent out to the media beforehand. It read: "Check against delivery".

In other words, make sure when quoting from the speech that the words delivered were the same as the ones on the page. But they have a more profound unintended meaning too. Promises are easy. They should always be checked against delivery. Expecting the Irish people to believe in fantastical coincidences, then pulling rank to silence them when they won't, delivers nothing except more cynicism about politics. That's why the vultures are circling. Enda rode his luck for years and it paid off. A slapdash approach to detail could now be what sees him off.

Sunday Independent

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