As Enda Kenny finally announces his intentions to step down as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Independent.ie Political Editor Kevin Doyle looks back on a career that few expected to reach such heights.
Enda Kenny has been both the baby and the father of the Dáil. In many ways he is the great survivor who rose to the top while all those around him fell away. Nowhere in the newspaper clippings is there any evidence that his colleagues saw him as a future Taoiseach. Garret Fitzgerald didn’t rate him and the media has given him a tough time. However, the story of how he stayed at the helm of Fine Gael for 15 years and as Taoiseach for over six years suggests there’s a lot more to Enda Kenny than jovial fist-pumping and quirky stories.
When necessary he has dispatched inconvenient partners such as Alan Shatter and Frank Flannery. He ruthlessly cut down the career of Lucinda Creighton and has taken the risky strategy of repeatedly side-lining his constituency colleague Michael Ring who is desperate to hold a Cabinet portfolio. Time and again Mr Kenny has shown a vicious streak that is needed to survive at the top of the political ladder.
As he steps away from Government Buildings he will point to the economic recovery as his greatest achievement. In 2011 he took over a country that had lost its sovereignty, its pride and its international standing. For five years he led what was effectively a national government along with the Labour Party. And although that coalition wasn’t re-elected he will claim their work set Ireland back on the path to prosperity. If the test of his leadership was an ability to restore confidence and stability then he rates highly. There are plenty of statistics to back up this argument but there were mistakes along the way too, most notably the setting up of Irish Water.
As he leaves office the country is on the brink of full employment again and the economy is growing fast than any other EU country. At the same time a 2007 promise to “end the scandal of patients on trolleys” remains unfulfilled. The housing market is once again in a mess and Brexit is looming large over every decision the Government makes.
Marks: Six out of 10
It’s rarely mentioned these days but Enda Kenny’s only Cabinet experience before becoming Taoiseach was two and a half years in the Department of Tourism and Trade between December 1994 and June 1997. His office became known as ‘happy valley’ due to Mr Kenny’s good humour and the fact that the period coincided with plenty of good news stories. In his book ‘The Unlikely Taoiseach’, John Downing suggested that Mr Kenny was “easily managed” by officials. He was criticised for not taking the role seriously enough as a reputation for enjoying the Dublin nightlife and being a bit of a joker followed him into his ministry.
However, the position gave Mr Kenny a chance to engage in plenty of foreign travel and he gained a substantially higher national profile. His supporters argued that criticism of his easy-going nature was simply because he was pompous like other ministers.
Years later as he launched his first leadership bid, Mr Kenny said: “I don’t know where this notion of Enda Kenny not having dealt with the substantial issues over the years has come form.
“When I became Minister for Tourism, Bord Failte was in chaos after Charlie McCreevy. The industry was in a very fragile state. I dealt with that sur-footedly, very competently, brought people with me, restored confidence.”
Marks: Five out of 10
While it might seem as if Enda Kenny has been Taoiseach forever, he was actually the leader of the Opposition for far longer. After Fine Gael’s election drubbing in 2002 Mr Kenny took over a massively depleted party with just 31 seats. He set about trying to reinvigorate the troops, telling them: “There will be no talking down to members of Fine Gael. This is your party.”
Aside from raising morale, his biggest task was to try take on the ‘Teflon Taoiseach’ Bertie Ahern. The then Fianna Fáil leader once remarked: “I don’t think Enda ever managed to lay a glove on me. He certainly never got a knockout punch.”
There was no eureka moment for Mr Kenny but in 2004 Fine Gael out-performed expectations in the Local and European elections, winning five seats in the European Parliament. It was the first time the party had ever defeated Fianna Fail in a national election. Mr Kenny had more joy in head-to-head battles with Brian Cowen as Taoiseach – but Fine Gael’s ultimate win over Fianna Fáil in the 2011 General Election had more to do with the economic crash than Kenny’s leadership.
Few would have believed when he survived Richard Bruton’s heave in June 2010 that Kenny would be hoisted into the Office of Taoiseach so smoothly the following February. In the process Fine Gael won 76 seats and Mr Kenny secured the enduring respect of his party colleagues.
Last year’s election campaign was not Mr Kenny’s finest moment in the Fine Gael jersey but everyone in the party recognises that he leaves it in a toe-to-toe battle with Fianna Fáil ahead. When he took over they weren’t even at the races.
Marks: Eight out of 10
Enda Kenny’s father Henry died in September 25, 1975 at the age of 62. Then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrove let it be known that he wanted a Kenny to stand in the subsequent by-election. Fine Gael HQ felt it was the only way of retaining the seat. It was decided that Enda should run after his older brother Henry decided he wasn’t interested.
Mr Kenny arrived at the Dáil on November 18 to take his seat for the first time, accompanied by a group of supporters carrying a green and red banner, reading ‘The West’s Awake!’. However, it would be a year before he made a significant speech in the chamber. When he did speak it was mostly on local issues and an effort to get a mention in the local newspaper.
Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s he had plenty of time to focus on constituency issues such as the automation of the Castlebar telephone exchange, fixing potholes, the development of hospital and even the future of the local bacon factory. While Minister for Tourism and Trade he delivered heavily for the constituency, ensuring special development tax incentives for Westport and Achill.
He made no qualms about what it took to survive as a rural TD. “One of the reasons for a rural Deputy speaking at all in the House is that he has the opportunity of sending details of his contributions to local newspapers, thereby keeping his name before the people he represents. This enables constituents to read what their Deputy had been advocating,” he said.
Marks: Seven out of 10
When Enda Kenny met Donald Trump in the White House last March he spent much of the conversation trying to ‘educate’ the new US President on the important of the European Union. It was a divergence from the usual March 17 script which focuses on the illegal Irish in America. Brexit brought with it exception circumstances but perhaps knowing his days were numbered Mr Kenny was seeking to impress his European colleagues.
However, his relationship with the EU can be split in two. There’s no doubt that Mr Kenny is committed wholeheartedly to the project and has influence among EU leaders – but sometimes these were overplayed. In October 2012 he let it be known that a flurry of phone calls between Dublin and Berlin led to a joint statement from himself and German chancellor Angela Merkel. It said the Irish case for relief on our gigantic bank debt was indeed a "special" case. Little consequence came of that promises as it later emerged that ECB chief Jean Claude Trichet threatened to set off a bomb in Dublin if senior bondholders were burnt.
Yet part of the reason Mr Kenny has avoided a heave in recent months is his reputation in Europe. Ireland’s stewardship of the EU Presidency in 2013 was widely seen as a success. And in more recent times Mr Kenny’s non-stop tour of European capitals has helped Ireland gain a “unique position” in the Brexit negotiations. Few would be surprised if Mr Kenny went on to secure a role in the European institutions.
Marks: Seven out 10
Strangely Enda Kenny is never more comfortable than when he’s not in the country. On foreign trips he excels at working the room, promoting Ireland and on occasion enjoying himself. Any political correspondent who has followed Mr Kenny on these trips will tell you they are far from relaxed. His agenda tends to be action packed from early morning meetings to late night receptions.
In recent times his many trips across Europe have been business-like as he sought support from places like Spain, Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Malta for Ireland’s special status in the Brexit talks.
However it’s not surprising that he will make one final trip to the United States before stepping down. The June trade mission to Seattle and Chicago will be his sixth trip across the Atlantic in little over a year. Mr Kenny seems to love the United States and they love him. While at home we cringe at the fist-pumping and paddywhackery, the US audience revels in it.
At the same time many of his biggest gaffes, such as the story of the army around the ATMs have been while overseas.
Marks: Seven out of 10
Time and again Enda Kenny has struggled when faced with technical questions on economic issues and yet his government led Ireland out of recession. He leaves behind a country with the fastest growing economy in Europe and an unemployment rate of just 6pc – down from 15pc at the height of the downturn.
During the 2011 election campaign Mr Kenny vowed to make Ireland the best small country in the world to do business. We might not be number one but various studies suggested we rank highly. To some extent the key he key to his success has been to allow the experts take care of figures. He started last year’s election campaign on the wrong foot when he dismissed questions on the fiscal space, saying: “I’m not going to get into economic jargon here because the vast majority of people don’t understand.”
In his old foe Michael Noonan he found a solid pair of hands for the Department of Finance over the past six years. Along the way there were rows over water charges and the growth of protest politics. But for most people there is money to spend again and the financial mood of the nation is on the up. It has been remarkable turnaround, even recognised by Time magazine who featured Mr Kenny on the frontpage with the headline: 'The Celtic Comeback'.
Marks: Eight out 10
Enda Kenny has taken more than a few ‘personal journeys’ over the years, especially on issues such as marriage equality and abortion. Back in 2012 he famously tripped over a flowerpot while trying to run away from the media who were merely curious as to where he stood on same-sex marriage. Three years later he was boosting that Ireland had set an example for other countries to follow with our referendum. “With today's Yes vote we have disclosed who we are - a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people,” he said, adding: “Our people have truly answered Ireland's Call.”
Similarly on abortion his stance has been conflicting over the years. A devout Catholic he is seen as conservative. However, after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar he pushed through the Protection of Life During Pregnancy bill in 2013 – even refusing to allow some of his up-and-coming TDs like Lucinda Creighton to vote with their conscience.
Since then he has changed the Fine Gael line to allow TDs and senators a free vote on issues of conscious. In 2015 he was effectively bounced into paving the way for an abortion referendum by two of his most loyal ministers, Frances Fitzgerald and Paschal Donohoe. Both argued behind closed doors that the party needed to address the growing demand for changes to the Eighth Amendment. Ironically this will now become a major issue for Mr Kenny’s successor following the publication of the Citizen’s Assembly report.
Mr Kenny also leaves behind a country that is still trying to establish the groundrules for a separation of Church and State. He has said that he was a Catholic and a Taoiseach but not a Catholic Taoiseach. This was evidenced in his reaction to the 2011 Cloyne report which made worldwide headlines. In an unprecedented attack on the Vatican he told the Dáil the report highlighted the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”.
“The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation'," he said.
However, he has met Pope Frances twice in the past year and at one point was suggesting that he wanted to remain as Taoiseach until August 2018 in order to welcome him to Ireland. There’s no doubt that this country is attitude to social issues is changing – but Mr Kenny was changing with the country rather than initiating the change.
Marks: Five out 10