Monday 17 June 2019

Fionnuala Kenny -- Enda's secret weapon

Gemma O'Doherty profiles the very private wife of the Fine Gael leader as he sets his sights on power

Gemma O'Doherty

She has no desire to be Michelle Obama Part II and you're unlikely to see her jetting over for tea in Number 10 with Sam Cam. It's a pity really, because Fionnuala Kenny is just the sort of woman who could work wonders for Ireland's bedraggled reputation on the international stage.

Put her in a room with Nicolas Sarkozy and watch him swoon at her flawless French -- and maybe think twice before taking another swipe at our corporation tax.

Send her out to bat for us in Brussels and her sharp no-nonsense approach to business might just help to whack a few percentage points off those dreaded interest rates.

Put her in a Fáilte Ireland ad and you'd have coach-loads of Americans streaming back to our shores, desperate for a taste of the home-cooked baking and old-fashioned hospitality that she's famous for in her adopted home of Castlebar.

But while her husband Enda may be on the cusp of taking centre stage in Irish politics, his first-lady-in-waiting has no intention of budging from her low-key position in the wings, putting family first, as she always has, and always will. It's a Leaving Cert year in the Kenny household this summer and a fly on the wall of her country kitchen might get the feeling that the mocks are more important than a certain looming election, at least as far as Fionnuala is concerned.

You won't see her out on the campaign trail beside her man, kissing babies and picking up a few extra votes. But behind the scenes, his shrewd spouse and most loyal supporter is his secret weapon and, some believe, his greatest asset.

It's the sort of comment that make feminists weep, but Mrs Enda Kenny once said that her role was to make sure her husband didn't have to worry about home or their three children, Aoibhinn (18), Ferdia (16) and Naoise (14). Her aim is to make sure he spends all his time and effort doing his job as a public servant to his absolute best.

Rewind 40 years and it seemed like the clever languages graduate from north Dublin was carving out a very different life for herself.

You'd wonder what her former boss, Charlie Haughey, would have made of it all, his beloved protégée settling for a Fine Gael Taoiseach.

Spotting her brains and drive, he headhunted the savvy young city girl from Clontarf for the job of senior press officer, a role which she held during most of the 1980s.

Embedded in Fianna Fáil, Fionnuala O'Kelly, the daughter of two civil servants, thrived in the tumultuous world of politics taking ruthless leadership heaves in her stride and picking up invaluable insights that would later serve her in married life when Enda faced the toughest tests of his career.

She went on to become the first female government press secretary and those who worked with her then speak glowingly of her common sense, intelligence and Swiss-like efficiency.

But in her role as image-maker, maternal touches often came to the fore. Before ardfheisanna, you'd see her roll up her sleeves and busy herself dusting off shoulders and straightening ties. She once took a scissors to Bertie Ahern's hair as he was about to step onto the podium rather than let him appear unkempt in public. You can only imagine the care she puts into keeping the love of her life looking his best.

But she is also a woman well-known for standing her ground against any man. She has gone down in the annals of Leinster House as the only person who ever threw a file back at Mr Haughey before wrangling an apology out of him.

"She was always well able to hold her own," says one former colleague.

"She wouldn't take any messing from anyone and Charlie admired that about her. She's very sharp, to the point and very sensible but she has stayed in the background all this time and I think that's how it will continue if Enda becomes Taoiseach."

It's more than 30 years since the longest-serving deputy in Dáil Eireann set eyes on the "spectacular beauty" handing out press releases on the chamber floor. He was a political nobody at the time, she a high-flying spin doctor, but their eyes met, he winked, and the flame of a most unlikely dalliance between green and blue was lit.

From polar sides of the civil war divide, they agreed to keep their courtship secret for several years, adding an extra spark to a sizzling romance she once likened to an affair.

When Ireland's presidency of the EU ended in 1990, she left her job as head of the Government Information Service to become boss of RTE public affairs. Marriage and babies were far down her list of priorities but Haughey seemed to think otherwise.

"Has this anything to do with young Kenny?" he asked before she left.

After a 10-year romance, Kenny, at the more mature age of 40, took her to the Aran Islands to pop the question and they married in 1992.

Before long, Fionnuala was pregnant with their first child and was so smitten with the experience of late motherhood at the age of 35 that she got around to having number two straight away. Suddenly career took second place and she had a yearning to move away from the bright lights and settle the family in the Mayo countryside, where she believed they would have a better quality of life away from "narrow middle class Dublin".

When their youngest child was born in 1997, she decided to take a leave of absence from RTÉ and never returned.

Her acutely protective friends say she has no interest in returning to the limelight, even though she is heavily involved in canvassing for the general election behind the scenes.

She picks out Enda's suits, chooses his hair style and advises him to speak clearly and simply when he's doing interviews -- yet her PR know-how hasn't managed to improve his leadership ratings in the opinion polls.

But the relentless criticism of her husband's personality shortcomings is not something she takes to heart.

"She would never get involved in any sort of bickering or complaining about the unpleasant things being said about Enda," says one close acquaintance.

"She would never stoop to anything like that but she would also accept that it goes with the territory. It would hurt her though if it was hurting the children, and she is known to hide a newspaper away from them if it is being unpleasant about their father.

"Her first thing is always the children and making sure they aren't exposed to the limelight. But she is very matter of fact about taking on this challenge. If it doesn't work out or Enda doesn't get in, she will be completely level-headed about it. They have a lot of things going on in their lives and a lot of other things to do."

One local observer believes one of the most remarkable aspects of their partnership is her low-profile presence back home.

"If you held up a picture of her in Mayo, most people wouldn't recognise her," he says.

"You're not getting a Michelle-and-Barack type package here. It is just Enda on his own. The family is her realm. Traditional values would be very important to her. The children go to an Irish-speaking school and have impeccable manners.

"They live in an ordinary house. There is no interest in wealth. She is not in any way noticeable. But she is by no means an intellectual lightweight and anyone who knows her knows she is a formidable person.

"Like Enda, she is very good with people on a one-to-one basis. However much the media seem to dislike Enda, I'm pretty sure they will warm to her."

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