Sunday 17 February 2019

So what do Barack, Dave and Angela really think of our Enda?

John Downing looks at the Taoiseach's relationship with world leaders before next week's G8 summit in Fermanagh

Enda with David Cameron in Dublin.
Enda with David Cameron in Dublin.
A veteran EU official thinks Barosso (left) and others don't rate Enda Kenny as their predecessors did Garret FitzGerald or John Bruton in times past.
John Downing

John Downing

All national leaders love to be seen on the world stage: it's an integral part of their DNA. And next week Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be delighted to forget domestic dramas for a couple of days as he plays to the cameras with the globe's most powerful politicians.

It's G8 time again, just over the border in Fermanagh, and he's entitled to join the elite party because Ireland is currently president of the European Union.

The last time a taoiseach hobnobbed with the big boys and girls was in Georgia, US, in June 2004, when Bertie Ahern was our leader. He got the headlines alright – but for all the wrong reasons.

The message went out that at a photocall walkabout the leaders could wear casual attire. For most that meant no tie and a couple of shirt buttons undone.

Enda dining with Barack Obama and John Boehner in Washington.
Enda dining with Barack Obama and John Boehner in Washington.

Bertie took it too literally and was infamously photographed in canary yellow slacks (see picture and panel).

We needn't worry that Enda will embarrass us like that. I formally put the sartorial question to his spokesman and got an unequivocal reply: "It is our intention that any talking points which may arise from the Taoiseach's attendance at the G8 will not relate to the clothes he is wearing."

Now, that's a relief.

But, otherwise, how will Enda Kenny match up to the political Premiership players next Monday and Tuesday on the shores of Lough Erne, where British Prime Minister David Cameron will host fellow government heads from the US, Canada, Japan, Russia, Germany, France and Italy amid the tightest lockdown security imaginable?

Cameron has signalled that issues of trade, taxation, transparency and terrorism will top the agenda along with the escalating crisis in Syria.

Mr Kenny, along with EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso, will be more honoured observers than realpolitik participants.

But the Taoiseach will be reassured that he has met at least four of the eight heavy-hitting leaders many times before.

Enda Kenny first met US President Barack Obama on a St Patrick's Day visit to the White House in 2011, just days after he was elected Taoiseach. He played host to him and Michelle in Ireland just weeks later, in May 2011, and has made two return trips to Washington since then.

"Enda Kenny, like so many other taoisigh, has access to the White House and Capitol Hill which many other European leaders envy greatly. It is clear the Kenny-Obama chemistry is good," says one Washington insider.

"Kenny got off to a great start simply because the Obama White House did not rate Brian Cowen and the previous government. They saw Kenny as someone coming to straighten out a mess. They believe he is making progress."

There are growing worries among some in official circles in Dublin that Mr Kenny sometimes overdoes the folksy talk and the tactile glad-handing.

On Wednesday, the Taoiseach delivered a 33-minute rambling speech to the American Chamber of Commerce without saying much at all.

Such anxieties are not, however, shared by observers stateside. "Americans love that grá-mo-chroí blarney stuff. But US foreign policy is driven by ruthless self-interest. The Obama administration is full of Irish-Americans. But they are not Irish and, bar March 17, they rarely think of Ireland. In a sense the Kenny-Obama relationship is very good – but has limited potential," another Washington observer says.

Much of the back-slapping and glad-handing, which Kenny has in spades, and which is so evident at EU and other summits, can be discounted. While cameras roll these occasions take on the air of a mutual admiration society meeting.

On that basis, Enda Kenny will be very warmly greeted by the summit host in Fermanagh, David Cameron. The pair enjoy an affable and workmanlike relationship. But the chumminess of the Blair-Ahern era, born out of years of battering both sides in the Northern Ireland talks towards agreement, is long gone.

"Cameron and Kenny get along well and work well together when necessary. But that's about the height of it," one observer of British politics sums up.

In Brussels, Enda Kenny gets a rather good – though not spectacular – rating. His fellow EU G8 attender next week, Jose Manuel Barosso, a former Portuguese premier, actually knew Kenny through the meetings of the European People's Party (EPP), or Christian Democrat group, which the Taoiseach began to attend regularly soon after his election as Fine Gael leader in June 2002.

One veteran EU official thinks Barosso and his fellow EPP heavy-hitters don't rate Kenny as their predecessors did Garret FitzGerald or John Bruton in times past. They rated Bruton enough to have him appointed EU ambassador to Washington in 2004.

"But they like Kenny and see him as someone they can very much do business with. He's not a political Einstein – but he does not need to be. Above all he is moving the Irish economy in the right direction and that is the main thing," the EU veteran says.

Kenny's rapport with Barosso was enhanced by a meeting before the 2011 general election in which he outlined an ambition to hugely vary the terms of Ireland's EU-IMF November 2010 bailout. Barosso counselled caution and correctly predicted that change would be hard-won and incremental.

Kenny has made an impression since going to Brussels at the start of our EU presidency. "He has led Ireland's presidency well and there has been good progress on the main issues like fishery and agriculture policy and the unblocking of the EU Budget plan, which will span seven years and comprise €960bn.

"His decision to bring the entire cabinet to Brussels for the formal start was a much-appreciated gesture and he has used his officials' expertise well. Kenny's Irish EU presidency is a success," the EU official says.

One veteran journalist in Brussels was more than impressed by Kenny's performance at his first summit which came just one day after he was elected Taoiseach in March 2011.

"He was jointly ambushed by French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel over Ireland's low corporate tax rate. I thought, when Angela Merkel squashes you, it's serious. But he hit back and showed steel. Rather good for a first day and in at the deep end," the journalist recalls.

The Angela Merkel-Enda Kenny dynamic is interesting. It looked good at the start with a photocall before the 2011 general election of a joint meeting in Berlin and much spin about Kenny 'tapping into the EPP connection'. Soon it became abundantly clear that this was mere optics as Chancellor Merkel is totally focused on federal elections in late September of this year, and afraid to show tolerance of spendthrift EU states deemed by Germans to have brought calamity upon themselves.

Commission President Barosso's predictions proved correct with small but important gains on extended terms for Anglo Irish Bank legacy debt and other bank debt. Kenny's potential influence with Merkel will be tested again this autumn – assuming she can win the election and presumably then have more scope for flexibility in dealing with Ireland's case.

As Enda Kenny approaches the midpoint of what will almost certainly be a full five-year term as Taoiseach, all but the harshest critics must acknowledge that he does measure up when pushing Ireland's case abroad. He works well on the European stage, does well in Washington, and has no problems in London.

The words that most occur in describing Kenny abroad are 'affable', 'friendly', 'pragmatic', 'businesslike'. It is a very good assessment which has a ring of being sufficient for the task in hand.

As he heads north to this G8 summit in Fermanagh he can hold his own with the best of them.

Irish Independent

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