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Enda afflicted by self-importance

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OPPORTUNITY TO BE FORCE FOR CHANGE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Fine Gael presidential candidate Gay Mitchell

OPPORTUNITY TO BE FORCE FOR CHANGE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Fine Gael presidential candidate Gay Mitchell

OPPORTUNITY TO BE FORCE FOR CHANGE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Fine Gael presidential candidate Gay Mitchell

SIX months ago, on the day he became Taoiseach, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny promised that honesty would not only be his Government's best policy, it would be its only policy.

Then, two weeks ago, at his party's think-in in Galway, Kenny said the people don't want waffle from the Government and he will "level with the people".

A Government of the people, for the people and by the people, he promised us.

Utter nonsense.

There is no doubt that Kenny and his colleagues have been lucky in their first months in office, and have been on a prolonged lap of honour. Behind the many photo opportunities with the likes of Queen Elizabeth and US President Barack Obama, in truth, Kenny's main achievement since coming into office has been to illustrate that his Government actually has a pulse.

However, very disturbing traits are already surfacing about how the Government is operating.

Based on events in Leinster House last week, Fine Gael under Taoiseach Enda Kenny is quickly becoming the most arrogant, most patronising and most smug ever seen in this State.

Maybe it was inevitable.

With the largest majority in history, Fianna Fail in turmoil and Sinn Fein indulging itself in the politics of fantasy, Kenny's most effective opponent in the Dail has been Independent TD Shane Ross, despite his limited number of opportunities to speak.

With a huge number of eager backbenchers getting restless, the whole dynamic in the Dail is now unhealthily unbalanced in favour of the Government parties.

This is after six months. What will things be like after two years?

Added to all this is the inherent superiority which Fine Gaelers feel anyway.

That same smugness cost Fine Gael the election in 2007. Days before the vote, politicians, handlers and supporters swanned around as if the result was in the bag. Such complacency led a half-baked Enda Kenny to go on to a national television debate where his lack of detail was exposed badly.

Back to 2011, even before the summer break, that self-importance was becoming visible both in ministers' attitudes toward the Opposition

in the Dail chamber and towards the media, but also to their own backbenchers.

With the return of the Dail last week, rather than being a passing phase, it is clear that that overconfidence has taken deep hold within Fine Gael.

It was Kenny himself who during Leader's Questions epitomised that pomposity in his handling of Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin.

Under questioning on the pension levy, rather than giving us the dignified statesman who delivered the devastating assault on the Vatican, a somewhat petulant Kenny resorted to ignoring the questions asked, and simply attacked Fianna Fail's legacy from their 14 years in power.

In truth, Kenny delivered a performance worthy of his predecessor Brian Cowen.

It did not go unnoticed. Micheal Martin may have overdone the anger in the Dail to ensure he got himself on the Six One News, but he was not alone.

Privately, Fine Gael backbenchers since then have voiced their concern over their leader's performance. They know the public has little or no appetite for that sort of self-serving "waffle", as Kenny himself described it.

"We know FF are toxic, everybody in the country knows that. What people voted for was strong leadership, not cheap shots from the Taoiseach at a party in disarray. What the people are looking for is clarity on where the cuts will come. That should have happened in May, the more we drag this out, the longer the country, the economy, will remain in limbo," said one senior party figure.

But the biggest concern is that Kenny and Fine Gael are at levels of popularity never experienced before. After years of being deeply unpopular, personally ridiculed and mocked, Kenny is popular.

Of course, it is nice to be liked. It is only human. But is it what we need in a leader?

"His deepest need is that people should like him. An admirable quality in a spaniel, or a whore, but not in a prime minister," the fictional British Prime Minister Francis Urqhuart famously said in Michael Dobbs' best-selling novel turned TV series House of Cards.

"Kenny is obsessed with being popular, to the point they have become incapable of making a tough decision. The people have repeatedly shouted 'tell us what you will do, tell us now so we can ready ourselves for it'. It is the not knowing and the mixed messages that is the problem," one senior minister said.

Given the political capital at his disposal, logic dictates that Kenny should maximise it and make the hard decisions now. But logic and popularity are rarely compatible bedfellows. Kenny, so far, has opted for popularity over logic.

The hardest decision that both Fine Gael and Labour have refused to take since entering government is the ending of the farce that is the Croke Park deal.

The continuing protecting of the cosseted higher echelons of the public sector (such as the €700,000 pay-off given to Dermot McCarthy and the pay disparity between public and private sector) is sapping any moral authority granted to the parties at the ballot box.

Worse than that, the failure to tackle the public sector unions is an abuse of the mandate given to them by a people who overwhelmingly rejected that policy, long espoused by Fianna Fail in the last decade.

Kenny's major problem is that aside from the great start he has had as Taoiseach and his current popularity, many within his own party still don't rate him as a heavyweight.

An honourable and decent man, yes. Effective politician, yes. Intellectual heavyweight, certainly not. "He has proven himself to be adept at the black arts of politics, the heave showed that, but too many in the party know, deep down, he is a man of straw," said one Fine Gael TD.

The more one talks to party members, it is clear that the divisions have not yet been healed and much resentment remains.

One of the key examples of this was the expelling of Denis Naughten over his failure to support the Government over the downgrading of A&E services at Roscommon Hospital. Naughten had sought an opportunity to explain his position to his party colleagues, but was "kicked out of the party with relish" before he had a chance.

"Kicking Denis out was more to do with his going against Kenny last July, than anything to do with Roscommon Hospital. He was the man from the West who did Kenny down, and they went after him," said another TD.

Many of a considerable number of backbenchers I spoke to last week have expressed the belief that Finance Minister Michael Noonan has the determination and resolve to drive the needed reforms through, including taking on the public sector unions.

But another mounting problem for Kenny is a growing antagonism toward his chief of staff Mark Kennelly.

Given Kenny's notable limitations in presentation and complex economic matters, Kennelly, a previous acolyte of Michael Lowry, who earns €168,000 from the taxpayer, is seen as having "far too much influence".

"Fine Gael for nine years now has been run by a bunch of non-elected heads including Kennelly around Kenny, who hold sway in how things go in the party," said one TD.

Like Fergus Finlay with Dick Spring in the Labour Party, there is deep resentment among a lot of the Fine Gael parliamentary party at Kennelly's influence over Kenny, and his authoritarian approach has brought him into the firing line.

Ultimately, given how the numbers are stacked in his favour, Kenny has a real opportunity to be a force for change and good, and he is no doubt aware of the pain being felt by people across the country.

Such a majority must be viewed as not as a constraint but as a lever for delivering the systemic and fundamental change he spoke of during the election campaign.

Given the mandate he was given at the ballot box, he owes it to the people to deliver that change.

If he doesn't, he will ultimately become the thing that his critics accuse him of being -- a man of straw.

Sunday Independent


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