Thursday 23 May 2019

'Micheál Martin has called me a dozen times or more'

In his first major interview since the General Election, Taoiseach Enda Kenny talks to Fionnán Sheahan about his problems with abortion, calling Micheál Martin, gangland, housing and that dance at Bruce Springsteen

Fionnán Sheahan

The country's equivalent of the famous Moscow-Washington Cold War red telephone is an 'old school' Nokia mobile phone with limited internet capability.

 It sends messages and takes calls. Basic. But the leader of our country is reputedly a fan because calls don't drop, no matter how bad the signal gets on the high roads and byroads of the west of Ireland.

The previous incarnation was even older, but equally reliable, and was last seen under the wheel of the Taoiseach's car. He also has an iPhone.

But if you really want to talk to Enda Kenny, you call him on the Nokia.

Micheál Martin has the numbers for both phones and he now uses them frequently. Under the new dispensation, Kenny's minority Government is reliant on Fianna Fáil support to get anything done. The agreement between the parties means the party leaders are in regular contact. The pair don't have set times for meetings, but there is "no surprises" clause in their arrangement.

In an interview with the Irish Independent, Kenny says he contacts Martin "out of courtesy" on matters of interest, such as the Brexit poll campaign.

"If I have an issue that he should know about or I need to deal with him I call him and vice-versa.

"He's called me about a dozen times or more. Sometimes I miss the call, come back and say, is there an issue here we need to deal with?"

In a fairly damning indictment of our partisan political system, two veteran politicians who have served at a senior level in Leinster House, particularly over the last five years, had never really talked.

"I know him better since the General Election than in the five years previous to that because I had no real occasion to talk to him as a person or as a politician because you had a clear majority. Therefore, you were never in danger of losing votes or not being able to put things through."

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Kenny is back in power. Barely. From the biggest majority in the history of the State, he's gone to the biggest minority. All is changed, except the occupant of the Taoiseach's office, whose authority is weakened after a bruising General Election campaign and the struggle to cobble together an administration that has no real clout. Already, there have been a series of U-turns and defeats on water charges, child benefit, recycling bins, mortgage interest rates and workers' rights. The inability to get contentious measures through has driven the necessity for consensus politics, but has also resulted in a lack of confidence in this Government's ability to advance an agenda.

The Nokia is sure to be ringing quite a lot over water charges. The deal-making issue still has the definite potential to be a deal-breaker. Surprisingly, Kenny opens up the wound following a European Commission clarification this week that water charges can't just be removed once put in place.

"You are going to have to pay," he says. "You don't have flexibility where you've had a regime for payment for water. But the committee that's going to be set up by the Oireachtas is going to have to take into account the international legal obligations of this country in respect of water and charges."

Kenny even suggests reducing the point at which charges can be deducted from wages - currently set at €500: "Those who haven't paid, obviously, it's in train that they will have to pay. When the bills go over €500 - you could consider reducing that amount if you wished, in order to be able to take it off them by attachment or whatever."

Something's going to have to give.

The office the Taoiseach occupies is the same, adorned with photos of him with leaders like Barack Obama and Francois Hollande; a heavy cross made from steel from the Twin Towers and a glass presentation from Bill and Melinda Gates sit on the conference table and ahurley rests behind his desk.

A photo of his three children, Aoibhinn, Ferdia and Naoise, in their Mayo jerseys takes pride of place on the fireplace. All three are grown up now and have left home, currently scattered around the world either working or travelling. Over the summer, the Taoiseach will take part in a charity cycle around the Ring of Kerry and he'll have to play a long-promised round of golf with US Vice-President Joe Biden when he visits.

All is not so changed in the office. His staff and his routine remain the same. In terms of the lessons learned from the election and how he has changed his approach to the job, he cites his "attitude".

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"I now know what to do, I know how decisions can be made. I know how you can drive ministers and their departments to actually make decisions and bring results."

Ironically, Fine Gael has come back with more ministers than before. And the party is now in control of the major departments, which interact with people's lives on a daily basis. After failing to connect with people during the General Election with his message of "Keep the recovery going", Kenny now wants to show what a healthier economy can deliver: "I want to see the question of health, the question of housing, the question of education, the question of justice, the question of opportunity - being proven on the ground and I believe we can do that."

Yet he still struggles to explain exactly what that means, failing to convince he has a vision for the country in five, 10, 20 years' time.

And with his majority gone, Kenny's ability to achieve any major change is limited. His position is similar to the US President, who has to get support on Capitol Hill for any measure to be passed. Yet he claims he can make progress.

"I understand exactly where I am here. This is a partnership government, you don't have a majority, therefore you can't walk around as if you can assume you can do everything, you can't."

The 2016 General Election saw him become the first Fine Gael leader to be returned to office for consecutive terms.

Kenny says he will lead the Government for the full term in office. Yet he also says he won't lead Fine Gael into the next general election. How he plans to unite these seemingly contradictory positions will remain the subject of a lot of speculation as the leadership race has already started. The logistics of that process is quite the puzzle. He says he has a plan in his head. "I have a very clear understanding of what it is that I am going to do and I will set that out in due course," he says.

Regardless, few enough inside or outside the party believe he will still be there anywhere near the next general election, whenever that may be. Another issue unlikely to be advanced by Kenny is around abortion. He's showing no sign of wanting to rush towards a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. He admits he has found personal stories he has been told by women who endured fatal foetal abnormalities "absolutely traumatic". But he is not convinced those who want to repeal the amendment have explained what they want instead.

"Now, for people who say we need to change this, we need to amend it, you have to discuss what it is that you want to amend, how you intend that it might be amended and what the consequences of that might be.

"These stories are very personal and are very sensitive but it's not as simple saying: 'Amend the Constitution to cater for that.' The Constitution says that the right to life of the unborn is protected and given equal rights as the life of the mother," he says. And he does consider himself as "pro-life".

Finally, the watercooler talking point of the week: his infamous air guitar playing at the Bruce Springsteen concert in Croke Park.

"When I see some of the stuff that has been written, I wonder whether I am supposed to sit there with my arms folded in a kind of a, just a look on the face. I am a big believer in Springsteen, I like his social comment, I like the commitment he puts into his work.

"I just think he is really a world-class operator. I enjoy his concerts and OK, maybe - I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't play the guitar but I am going to go a long way if I keep following Springsteen."

Kenny in quotes

On Alan Shatter: "I haven't been speaking to him since he came into this office here last year. My relationship with Alan Shatter is a professional relationship, obviously worked with him over the years, complimented him for his work as a reforming minister and move on."

On Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan: "I've absolutely full confidence in the Garda Commissioner, I've had a number of meetings with her, with her senior personnel and the Minister for Justice."

On Shane Ross: "I get on very well with him."

On Denis Naughten: "I get on very well with Denis Naughten, absolutely."

On Katherine Zappone: "I visited Katherine Zappone and her people on a number of occasions when I was in opposition. I found her really interested in the educational area, and her experience of dealing with socially disadvantaged areas was quite striking."

On water charges: "We've already said in the Programme for Government that those who paid and those who haven't paid are not going to be treated differently. You are going to have to pay."

On abortion: "I have a problem with this. And it's not the first time I've said that. This is a profound issue for every person. The Constitution belongs to our people. It's put together by the people and it's changed by the people and it's amended by the people. And I've struggled with this in the past, and still do."

On what's different: "I now know what to do, I know how decisions can be made. I know how you can drive ministers and their departments to actually make decisions and bring results."

On his dancing at Bruce Springsteen: "And so what if I enjoy myself one night of the year? Why not?"

Irish Independent

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