Tuesday 21 November 2017

The Enda I've known for over 25 years . . .

(and believe me, he's nothing like his TV image)

It was late autumn 2008 in Castlebar. On a blustery Saturday morning Enda Kenny invited me to join him for a coffee after launching my book Battleship Bertie -- Politics in Ahern's Ireland.

In a crowded cafe, where he was warmly welcomed, shook hands and exchanged greetings, the Fine Gael leader surprised me when he suggested that a follow up publication should be titled 'Belgrano Biffo'.

The General Belgrano was an Argentine Navy cruiser sunk during the 1982 Falklands War by a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine with the loss of 323 lives. It was attacked on the order of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when it was outside the nautical 200-mile zone which Britain claimed was under its jurisdiction.

Apart from the attraction of the alliteration, the title instantly cued Brian Cowen's government ending in disaster and recrimination amid international dismay.

And, sure enough, it happened last month when Cowen ceded the leadership of Fianna Fail to Micheal Martin and joined the growing exodus of ministers who received handsome severance packages, while abandoning a sinking Ship of State weighed down in national debt to the EU-IMF.

It immediately struck me that Enda had already identified fatal flaws in Cowen who had taken over from the disgraced Bertie in May 2008.

Enda spoke of how Cowen was not listening to him as Leader of the Opposition about the fast-approaching economic crisis; that he was not reading briefing files and was spending excessive social time with his kitchen-cabinet cronies.

For almost an hour, Enda, with the precision of a political surgeon, gave me a clinical diagnosis of the worst administration in the history of the State. In contrast to his hesitant media performances, the Fine Gael leader gave me a masterly briefing with a grasp of even economic detail. Enda Kenny possesses a first-class political brain.

Not for the first time, Enda, who celebrates his 60th birthday next month, excelled in a one-to-one encounter.

It's a very different Enda from the public perception of him as a 'culchie' chicken, afraid to cluck in television debates with Eamon Gilmore and Micheal Martin.

The east coast Enda-Doubting-Thomases neither like, nor rate him. Even in his native Mayo, I've heard him described as a Peter Pan who never grew up and is reliable only for his lack of punctuality.

Apart from his not arriving on time, none of these strictures resemble the Enda Kenny I have known since January 1986 when I first interviewed him in snow-clad Castlebar when he was an unknown back-bencher.

We met in his local pub. It was an enjoyable and enlightening political interview. Over several hours -- and several pints -- Enda astounded me with his rote memory recitation of John F Kennedy's presidential address and entertained me by mimicking the accents of leading political figures.

I filed a story replete with insights into the life of a rural deputy who oozed practical proposals for Dail reform.

A few weeks later, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald promoted him as a junior minister at the Departments of Education and Labour with special responsibility for youth affairs. Even then, there were Dail bar murmurings about how he would deliver departmental scripts.

I recall noting his first ministerial assignment on the Dail schedule, and of going up to the Oireachtas press gallery to observe how he performed. He was both 'to the Manor Born' and boyishly mirthful in asides.

Since 1987 when I founded the annual Humbert Summer School in Mayo, Enda has been a stalwart supporter, even acting as my Mayo emissary by taking copies of our publications to Louisiana, where General Humbert, the Victor of 'the Races of Castlebar', was honoured by General, later President, Jackson for bravery in the Battle of New Orleans.

As a result, each August 22 is now celebrated as General Humbert Day in New Orleans.

When John Bruton became Fine Gael Taoiseach in 1995, he appointed Enda to Cabinet as Trade and Tourism Minister, which he handled with flair.

A major factor in Enda's personal growth was his falling in love with Fionnuala O'Kelly, one of Charlie Haughey's "press babes".

His marriage in 1992 to the formidable Fionnuala gave him the domestic security of three children and support to lead Fine Gael after its 2002 debacle, energetically rebuilding a moribund party and scaling new heights in the 2004 local and European elections, only to be narrowly deprived of the throne by a late rally to Bertie with Biffo's help in 2007.

In the 2011 campaign two strategic masterclass moves have been Enda's visit to European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and, even more impressively, last Monday's trip to Germany as guest of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Both occasions position him as Taoiseach-in-waiting, whose policy of ring-fencing Ireland's special corporation tax and modifying the interest burden on Irish taxpayers of the EU-IMF albatross is being given serious attention in Europe's corridors of power. This has left 'Mao' Martin and 'Stickie' Gilmore looking like envious corner-boys, cynically dismissing Kenny's visits to Brussels and Berlin as mere photo opportunities.

Neither the 'Gilmore Gale', nor the 'Martin Resurrection', has materialised -- and the bell tolling 'The Killing of Kenny' has not chimed.

Unlike the other four pretenders, Gilmore, Martin, John Gormley and Gerry Adams, 'General' Kenny is the leader Europe is already engaged with as the authoritative voice in Ireland's salvation narrative.

Indo Review

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