Tuesday 21 November 2017

Why Taoiseach Enda doesn't sound so funny

Seven years ago in a count centre in Mayo it seemed like the long political career of Enda Kenny as a TD was at an end. Fine Gael stalwarts were tumbling like ninepins all over the country at a general election as the apparently invincible Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail bowled over an electorate, sated by a boom which never seemed to end.

Enda was trailing in the polls after the first count in Mayo, and even prepared a concession speech on that night.

In the event, he survived by a whisker. But for the vagaries of our electoral system, and a few transfers, Enda Kenny could easily have been little more than a footnote in the history of his party.

His main claim to fame at that time was that he had revamped Dublin's St Patrick's Day parade in the mid-1990s as Tourism Minister. It was a nice line on a CV, but hardly Churchillian in its significance.

But what a transformation he has wrought since he assumed the leadership of his party not long after Fine Gael's election disaster.

On his watch, a party that was dejected, divided and rudderless has enjoyed a steady revival.

For the first time in its history, Fine Gael has just finished ahead of the Fianna Fail behemoth in a national election, trouncing the senior government party by 7pc in the local polls.

His supporters will be hoping that the victory will help to remove a pebble that has been grating under the door since he became leader: the lingering question about whether he has the bottle to be Taoiseach.

Detractors suggest that the election was lost by a cack-handed Government, coming to the end of its natural life in the depths of recession, and that Kenny merely got lucky.

So is it just luck? After his extensive revamp of Fine Gael since 2002, one is reminded of the quip of the golfer Gary Player: "It's funny; the more I practise, the luckier I get!"

Enda is the longest-serving deputy in the Dail. He came in 34 years ago, when the almost Edwardian Liam Cosgrave was Taoiseach and most TV sets were still black and white.

Observers often wonder how he passed his early years in politics. Did he have a lost decade?

Ivan Yates, the Newstalk presenter who served with Enda as a cabinet minister and shared a Leinster House office earlier in his career, has watched his development closely.

He is warm in his praise of Enda, the person, but shows a touch of ambivalence in his assessment of man as Taoiseach apparent.

"Enda is decent, modest, charming, calm, humorous, and excellent company,'' says the ex-minister. "On a personal basis he is impossible to dislike.

"When I knew him first we were both single, footloose and fancy-free TDs. We would go out to nightclubs together and he would be happy to stay in bed half the day. He wasn't ambitious.''

So how did this affable, intelligent, but apparently directionless politician help to rescue his party and become the leading contender to be the next Taoiseach?

Yates puts the transformation down to his marriage to Fionnuala O'Kelly, a senior spin doctor who crossed the floor from the heart of Charles Haughey's Fianna Fail in the early 1990s to become his wife.

Fionnuala was close to the action at the heart of Haughey's Fianna Fail, and must have learnt a few political tricks along the way.

She would perform any task, important or apparently menial, to improve Fianna Fail's image -- even cutting Bertie Ahern's hair on one occasion to stop a bedraggled figure appearing on stage at an ard fheis.

The way in which Enda and Fionnuala met is now the stuff of Leinster House legend. The young FG politician was making a speech in the Dail when he gazed up at the press box to see a demure figure in a blue dress handing out press releases.

He winked at her, and a relationship that knew no political boundaries was born. They married in 1992 and have three children.

"I believe his marriage to Fionnuala greatly strengthened him,'' says Ivan Yates. "She is a real politician herself and she filled him with ambition. He is a late developer.''

Another strength of Enda's, according to Yates, is his staying power. While Brian Cowen looks tired, Enda, who is 10 years older than the current Taoiseach, remains full of beans.

"He has the advantage of being the 'Peter Pan' of Irish politics,'' says Yates. "While everyone else goes grey or bald he appears ever more youthful.

"He has survived for a long time in politics and has shown the patience to endure. He has some of the qualities of Bertie, but would not be as cute."

There is little doubt about his durability, and his ability to get on with people, but doubts remain about his toughness and his forensic attention to detail.

Fine Gael may be resurgent, but opinion polls continue to show that its leader has a low satisfaction rating among voters.

It is widely accepted that his Dail performances are poor.

Critics inside Leinster House believe that he tries too hard to seem like an earnest Taoiseach-to-be, lumbering every phrase with contrived indignation. His humour and intelligence do not really come across.

In his favour, it should be said that Dail smart alecs, the Michael McDowell figures who hone their skills at college debating societies, are not always the most successful politicians.

"He has made Fine Gael less like a party of barristers,'' says Brian Hayes, one of Fine Gael's most prominent frontbenchers.

Hayes says: "You have to remember that when Enda took over, the party was in disarray and riven by dissent. He has instilled the attitude that we can win.''

Senior FG figures say he leads the party like a chairman, rather than as a chief executive, choosing his appointees well and then leaving them to get on with the job.

One ex-cabinet minister said: "There is no stain on his character and he has not made a major f***-up, which has to be a good thing in a leader."

Ivan Yates says: "People have different opinions about Enda. Some people believe he hides his intellect deliberately. Other think there is nothing really there.

"He may not have a great grasp of detail, but he can get others to do that work for him."

Timing now favours Leinster House's long-distance runner. One backbencher, who knows him well, says the best thing that happened to Enda was not winning the 2007 general election.

"If we had won, we would have been blamed for the economic mess, which Fianna Fail got this country into. It would have been disastrous for Fine Gael.''

Now he can only wait as knives are twisted into Fianna Fail and the Greens before they eventually tumble out of Government. If and when he fills the Taoiseach's chair, we will really see if he has what it takes to be a statesman.

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