Sunday 19 January 2020

Alison O’Connor: Enda an example to us all of how hard work wins out

Phil Hogan is
mobbed by media
as he arrives at the
ard fheis in Dublin.
Phil Hogan is mobbed by media as he arrives at the ard fheis in Dublin.

The biggest problem facing Taoiseach Enda Kenny at his ard fheis tonight will be getting delegates to sit on their hands and to keep schtum. It will be their natural inclination to sing to the rafters in praise of their leader, and of their party in government.

Fine Gael is a party that does not have to dig deep to find its natural ruling arrogance; that blue blood sense of entitlement, so long thwarted by the voting Irish public. All that being said, though, this is a party that spent what seemed like an eternity in the desert of opposition. This is their first proper opportunity since entering government to get together -- en famille as it were -- and clap themselves on the back. And you know what, they deserve the celebration.

Just a few weeks ago, the party got itself into the height of trouble for organising a relatively minor event, a photocall, to celebrate their first anniversary in power. There was almost a sense they had forgotten they were no longer in opposition.

It was a rather ill-advised affair, and as Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said rather witheringly at the time, a little bit "silly".

But as party chairman Charlie Flanagan has said, an ard fheis is a "high festival". Within the four walls of the National Conference Centre in Dublin they are entitled to their high jinks. It should be funny, though, watching party handlers desperately trying to keep any "militant euphoria" from getting out of hand and seeming to lack sensitivity towards those watching from the outside who have suffered from rising taxes and cuts.

But if we acknowledge that Fine Gael, and their Labour coalition partners, are politicians and not magicians, then the fair-minded conclusion is to say they have done pretty well in taking over a country that was bust.

It is over 15 years since the party celebrated an ard fheis while in government, and it is almost exactly two years since that last national conference, which took place in Kerry.

What a 24 months it has been, though. Looking back to that meeting in March 2010, the coverage, while not hugely negative, still kept turning up questions about Enda Kenny's leadership.

His televised speech was seen as rather unconvincing and massively rehearsed. There were references to his lack of charisma and credibility, and his insistence in waving his hands about. It's funny that he now has so much credibility, far more than any other member of the Government.

Maybe in a way, people recognise that Enda (not to torture the analogy) knows exactly what it is like to face a seemingly hopeless situation. He recognises that if you work hard and hang in there, things will work out in the end.

This is, after all, a man who for almost 10 years had everything from his hand actions to his intellectual prowess questioned and criticised.

But he simply kept going. He's a self-help book in motion. 'How to Triumph in the face of Adversity' could be his working title.

A decade ago, Fine Gael party strategist Frank Flannery (who better to write the foreword for Enda's book?) described the man who is now our Taoiseach as a work in progress. The Mayo man is still clearly getting the hang of being in government, and in charge, but he's come a long long way. There have been mistakes -- we need look no further than the mess the Government has made of the household charge campaign -- but the pluses so far outweigh the minuses.

We're still bust; but now rather than feeling bust and hopeless there is a little bit of positivity creeping in and a sense that, insofar as anyone can help us, maybe this Government can.

Enda has not been without his faults, it is just that his positive points have outweighed them. He does have a rather distasteful inclination to be rudely dismissive of those opposite him in the Dail chamber, or to simply ignore pertinent questions put to him by the opposition, or the media. His hands-off style of being in charge can also be a drawback. There can be that sense that he will leave a minister to flounder around rather than get drawn into a tough situation, or to be seen to publicly deliver a rebuke.

But there is no gainsaying the fact that the Taoiseach has taken to this new job. Most recently, in the space of a few weeks, he has delivered really well in terms of his interactions with Barack Obama in Washington, and with this week's visit to China.

China, as we know, is the world's fastest growing economy and is about to become a huge global power. We need to realise that, while it is, of course, good to have friends in Washington, the westernisation model is not where it is at any longer. Enda is showing that he gets this.

The Taoiseach is well aware that China has already overtaken America on a number of significant fronts, including manufacturing output, exports and fixed investment. By 2014, for example, China could be the world's biggest importer and have the largest retail sales.

But back to the Dublin docklands where Enda will deliver his televised speech tonight. Is he ever tempted, you'd have to wonder, to stand up and tell those who doubted him that he's having the last laugh? He probably doesn't need to. Getting to address your party's ard fheis as Taoiseach must ease all kinds of past pains.

Irish Independent

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