Friday 24 January 2020

Great leader? No - but Kenny has defied the odds and is the great survivor

Behind the grins and jovial digs is a deceptively impressive political operator, writes Liam Collins

'It seems that Kenny’s greatest achievement so far was to form a Government out of the ashes of an inconclusive election.' Photo: Getty
'It seems that Kenny’s greatest achievement so far was to form a Government out of the ashes of an inconclusive election.' Photo: Getty
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

The 'plinth' of Leinster House - the raised concrete platform where politicians meet the press - is empty now, the TDs, having concluded their annual lap of honour at the summer schools, have disappeared for their real holidays in the dog days of August.

It is just 93 days since the formation of the most unusual Government the State has ever seen.

Enda Kenny's 'partnership' Cabinet has parked Brexit, a renewed banking crisis, the Eighth Amendment, the end of collective cabinet responsibility and sailed calmly into the long summer recess.

The Taoiseach may even grant himself a wry smile as he puts his feet up and looks at the headlines - drugs and the Olympics, chaos in the Catholic Church over seminarians' antics in Maynooth and more bad news in the charity sector.

The man described by his current Transport Minister Shane Ross as a "political corpse" has had a Lazarus-like resurrection.

As the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected to office after an election, Kenny has achieved something denied to far greater figures who led his grand old party.

But as Napoleon said: "I know he's a good general, but is he lucky?"

Kenny would probably argue that luck had little enough to do with it, but in the shake-up after the inconclusive election, his re-election as Taoiseach was the most unlikely outcome.

It all started back in November of 2015, when the Fine Gael leader basically 'bottled it' in the face of opposition from his Tánaiste Joan Burton and scrapped plans to call an election. It was his first big mistake. The speculation had effectively scuppered his austerity government and it was only a matter of time before he had to go to the country.

His second mistake came in the campaign with 'Keep the recovery going.' It was a slogan that stuck in the craw of the electorate.

While nobody could argue that Kenny and his austerity cheerleader Michael Noonan had taken Ireland from the clutches of the Troika and restored national sovereignty, the price in unpopularity was awesome.

The 'recovery' might have been felt in certain belts of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, but in the urban sprawls and small towns of Ireland, with some notable exceptions, the wounds inflicted by cutbacks were far from healed.

With 50 seats, 26 fewer than after the 2011 election, Enda Kenny came into the 32nd Dáil beaten and weakened and facing the virtually impossible task of forming a government.

But with Fianna Fáil (44 seats) the reluctant brides, he managed a pact with the main opposition party and wooed the Shane Ross-led Independent Alliance with seats in the Cabinet to form a Government on May 6, after getting over the line by one vote at the fourth attempt to elect a Taoiseach.

It was a major achievement and probably the one for which, in the end, he will be most remembered. He also kept his promise to reduce unemployment, but let's face it, nobody wants to be remembered for the war of attrition that took the country out of austerity.

So it seems that Enda Kenny's greatest single achievement so far was to form a Government out of the ashes of an inconclusive election. If nothing else, he has proved Michael O'Leary wrong. Describing the election result as "a mess", he said the economy "can't survive with either a minority government or a coalition of liquorice all-sorts". It has.

But in the end, it wasn't the hodgepodge Government or the Irish electorate that plunged the markets into uncertainty, but the British electorate, who voted to leave the EU and, in doing so, may drive their own country back into recession next year, leaving us, their neighbours, in an increasingly precarious position.

So what has Enda actually done in those 93 days?

Doing nothing, or very little, is always a smart move for a political leader. Kenny knows well that busy ministers who want to bring in rafts of legislation do so at their peril. Legislation means further rules and regulations and the vast majority of people believe there is enough 'big government', making their lives a misery.

Read more: Why there should be no hurry on Enda Kenny to resign as Taoiseach

Kenny also made a number of smart moves at self-preservation straight away. He brought Shane Ross and the Independent Alliance into government, knowing that Alan Kelly was at least telling it straight when he said: "Power is a drug."

Mary Harney put it slightly more delicately in a text to Green Party leader John Gormley: "Your worst day in government is better than your best day in opposition."

The lads love power. It's not just that you can get things done, but you can make decisions that influence public policy. Instead of trying to get your message across to the media, you have the media coming to you. Most importantly of all, it means that you are not very far from the apex of power - and that is what political careers are all about.

Few other party leaders could have concluded a soft three-year pact with Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin. Again it comes down to Kenny's pragmatism and lack of political principles, his almost non-personality.

He knows that this situation is like the fable of the frog and the scorpion crossing the river, but he also knows that there is a bit of swimming to be done before they get to the other side and someone might work out how to dislodge the scorpion before the fatal sting.

In the meantime, the Fianna Fáil front bench has open access to all ministerial offices and that's not something the opposition ever had before.

The first real test of Kenny's leadership came with junior member John Halligan publicly declaring that he would vote against the Government and in favour of Mick Wallace's amendment to the Protection of Life Bill, which was aimed at taking fatal foetal abnormality out of the scope of the Eighth Amendment. Shane Ross, the full-blown cabinet minister for the Independent Alliance then declared that he too would also be voting against the Government.

While the public scarcely cared about such machinations, the political 'chattering classes' got into a tizzy about the ending of 'collective cabinet responsibility'. Kenny wisely decided to go softly-softly and let it play out, which it did. The sky didn't fall in and he kicked it nicely to touch with a Citizens' Assembly.

But all this 'Mr Nice Guy' stuff has unsettled his own backbenchers, like former junior minister Fergus O'Dowd, who is slightly peeved that he has been passed over for any post in the reshuffled Cabinet. In the great Irish tradition of political leaders clinging to power, Kenny has acknowledged that he does not intend to lead Fine Gael into the next election, but won't set a date for when he intends to step down.

Doing so would effectively end his leadership, because it fires the starting gun on the succession stakes and nobody in politics is interested in yesterday's man, apart from buying them a drink in the Members' Bar.

Kenny's younger ministers soon expressed their confidence in his leadership, with the usual platitudes that he should be given "the time and space" to name the date.

He appears to have taken an impish pleasure after the 'heave' had fizzled out in taking the ringleaders for coffee in the self-service restaurant in Leinster House, so all could see who was Boss.

Enda has learned a lot in his years in the Dáil, the main lesson being never to let the others know what you are really thinking.

Read more: Four out of 10 people believe Taoiseach should 'quit now' - new Red C poll

Like other Fine Gael leaders, he has been less certain on Northern Ireland. Enda's idea for an 'All Ireland Forum' on the Brexit issue is a good one, but he should have cleared it with First Minister Arlene Foster before springing it on her and getting a frosty public reception in public after the North-South ministerial meeting in Dublin.

His talk that it could bring about a united Ireland is unsettling for Unionists, even it was aimed more at his own electorate in the Republic.

In the wake of Brexit, it will take deft footwork for him to negotiate a good deal for Britain, which is in Ireland's interest, while at the same time placating the nasty French, who are taking pleasure in England's exit, and the implacable Germans, who are determined to march into the future as the de facto leaders of Europe.

Maybe it will even serve as an excuse to stay on for an extra year or two...

All in all, he pulled off something of a political miracle. Who knows what pitfalls await after the long clammy summer? But whatever it brings, Enda is sailing towards the 100 days in office with a smile on his face and a jovial dig in the ribs for all he meets.

Irish Independent

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