Friday 18 October 2019

Ivan Yates: Lucky general lacked courage - and conviction

Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala tickle the ivories in 2007. Photo: Tom Burke
Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala tickle the ivories in 2007. Photo: Tom Burke
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Any review of Enda Kenny's political career, achievements, persona, failings or character, must start and finish with his best ever decision - to marry Ms Fionnuala O'Kelly in 1992. As Fine Gael leader since 2002, she has been Kenny's chief confidante, mentor and political adviser.

Over recent weeks, in anticipation of the 'End of Enda', I spoke with FG guys who were publicly perceived to be part of Kenny's inner kitchen cabinet over the past 15 years - people who gave him unswerving, unstinting, loyalty during his darkest, most doubtful moments, like the leadership heave in 2010. I wanted to get positive perspectives to balance my own natural negativity, in order to provide a fair and balanced assessment and insights.

These insiders shocked me with their common refrain: "Kenny had many acquaintances, but few close friends". The Taoiseach has profound political and people skills that allowed him to network effectively in achieving objectives. But the aftertaste amongst diehard loyalists, cabinet colleagues and apparatchiks in party headquarters and Government Buildings is that any devotion was a one-way street.

Some privately feel Kenny lost the run of his self-important self on becoming Taoiseach. After nine years of life in opposition, he's perceived as leaving behind many of those who propelled him into high office. Maybe it's ever thus. Arrogance goes with the top job, operating in a sycophantic bubble of adoring acolytes.

But the central point: at heart, Kenny's soul mate - Fionnuala - was his sole mate.

Read more: A man of the times who butchered a golden opportunity

The feeling is that everything was strictly business. There was no mutual cabal of common friendship, no deep bond of personal affinity. No warm reciprocal empathy. Kenny's greatest achievement was his longevity as leader. He was prepared to jettison anyone in order to survive.

Beneath his superficial charm and good-humoured bonhomie was a severe stubbornness, determined defiance and relentless ruthlessness. Ministers were appointed primarily on the basis that they would always support him as Taoiseach. He was a lone wolf in sheep's clothing.

These political qualities (not criticisms) are the main reasons why he has been the longest-serving Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach. Kenny's managerial mask rarely slipped - only occasionally could you see the contrived smile which concealed an inner anger.

Colleagues who knew the old Enda, pre-Fionnuala, regarded him as one of the nicest, most collegiate, unambitious, humorous, affable, and popular lads you could socialise with. He was perceived as easy-going to the point of lazy. He was the opposite of a policy wonk, unaffected by intellectual detail. He was a Mayo cute hoor, fluent Gaelgeoir, primary school teacher, not a risk-taker - he was steeped in traditional tribal politics, akin to his late father, Henry Kenny TD.

Read more: Enda: the unlikely Taoiseach who rose without a trace

All that changed, when he came under the incredible influence of former Fianna Fáil press officer Fionnuala - who worked with Haughey and was RTÉ's top PR person. She transformed him from happy-go-lucky TD into Taoiseach. She sustained his mojo and helped him persevere with politics for 42 years in Mayo, where the stamina of a saint would be sapped.

Mayo - a constituency where the endless, repetitive, draining drudgery of life as a TD is at its most miserable. He endured the weekly commutes to Dublin; the countywide network of FG branch AGMs; the club and county football matches; four decades of weekly/monthly clinics, often with same repeat clients. He was always available on Midwest Radio, and perennially photographed in the 'Western People' and 'Mayo News'.

Beyond Enda's personal story, the history books will ultimately determine his legacy. For now, journalism must rush to judgement. Kenny's government will be credited with a successful exit from the troika bailout, and transitioning from 15pc to 5pc unemployment.

His singular, focussed mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs" did create favourable circumstances for renewed investment, instilling business confidence, and restoring Ireland Inc's reputation. While significant budgetary heavy lifting was done by the late Brian Lenihan, Kenny ensured there was no distraction or deviation from fiscal discipline up to 2015.

Kenny was the quintessential chairman, not chief executive. He routinely delegated detail. An extensive machinery of programme managers, within Government Buildings, facilitated his focus on top-line issues. Cabinet meetings were decisive, securing key direction, rather than getting bogged down in endless analysis. He was the classic macromanager.

This prime ministerial style works well in delivering on a key objective, but can also run into the sand, and result in ill-considered, even disastrous, administrative misadventures. Two prime examples were Universal Health Insurance and the abolition of the Senate. A lack of detailed preparation and loose leadership meant both of these plans were scuppered - and became unnecessary damaging escapades.

His overall mishandling of Garda management reform, whistle blowers and the Commissioner's credibility reflected an innate conservatism to confront change with courage. Ditto on Repeal of the Eighth amendment. Beyond his eloquent set-piece scriptwriters, did he really provide a vision to tackle the challenges of a modern, secular Ireland? No. It's handier to look the other way. And survive.

Kenny will be credited with the successful same-sex marriage referendum. In fairness, this may not have been attempted, let alone enacted under an Fianna Fáil-led government. But the most credit for pursuit and persuasion of the liberal agenda must go to Eamon Gilmore and Labour.

Electorally, I would give Kenny's general election campaigns exam grades of: 2007 - B minus; 2011 - A plus; 2016 - D minus. After the Michael Noonan-led debacle of 2002, Kenny started on such a low base of 31 TDs, that it required a two-election strategy for government.

Mullingar Accord momentum couldn't overcome the economic windfalls of Bertie's bonanza giveaways, but Kenny did lose the critical TV debate with Ahern. FF's implosion meant a cakewalk for FG/Labour and a massive majority in 2011, but the biggest disappointment of Kenny's career must be the failure to win the last election - and the loss of one-third of FG votes and seats.

His own stump performance was abysmal, culminating in his calamitous remarks about "All Ireland Whingers" in Castlebar. His antipathy to the media, reluctance to be interviewed and poor broadcast communications skills were his worst trait and ultimate Achilles heel. This constant weakness throughout his leadership caused charges of inherent public mistrust and incompetence.

Kenny was chosen in 2002 by colleagues because he was deemed to be the one best equipped to compete with Bertie Ahern on the issues of likeability and long political experience. He promised to "electrify" the party. In making FG the largest party in the state, he ultimately delivered.

His legacy is unlikely to be anything lasting in the context of either the EU or Northern Ireland. He was a lucky general and got the critical breaks - especially not winning the election in 2007!

But his drawn out swansong and lengthy laps of honour follow his worst year of leadership. 'New Politics' made Enda a eunuch - impotent and without authority. It subtracted, rather than added to his CV, unless longevity is your sole aim. Urgent profound problems of hospitals and housing were long-fingered while Kenny continued to strut on the stage of self-indulgence.

But now, together, Fionnuala and Enda deserve to enjoy a long, happy, and healthy retirement. The king is dead, long live the king.

Irish Independent

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