Tuesday 15 October 2019

It didn't have to be like this - Enda could have picked his moment to exit

Enda Kenny saw off a heave led by Richard Bruton (pictured) in 2010. Photo: Tom Burke
Enda Kenny saw off a heave led by Richard Bruton (pictured) in 2010. Photo: Tom Burke
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It didn't have to be like this. Enda Kenny has had many opportunities to bow out of politics on a high - but couldn't loosen his grip on power.

He has led the country through some of the most turbulent years in living memory and, despite having many tough days, always managed to summon up a cheery fist-pump when needed.

When journalists heard a "boom, boom" in the distance, they knew to tense up for an incoming punch to the shoulder.

Mr Kenny is also the person who brought Fine Gael back from the political dead in the wake of the 2002 pummelling at the hands of Bertie Ahern. And he even magnanimously managed to resurrect his old foe Michael Noonan's career in the process.

But the writing has been on the wall for some time and he should have seen it coming.

Mr Kenny has survived countless 'close calls', most notably the 2010 heave where he saw off Richard Bruton.

It's worth reflecting now that key in the Bruton camp was Leo Varadkar, while nobody was quite sure where Simon Coveney sat.

Some believed he was actually a double agent.

But the 'young pups' of Fine Gael learned that while they might not have seen Mr Kenny as charismatic and inspirational, he had mettle.

That resolve has been tested many times over his 15 years as leader, and particularly as Taoiseach. Speculation about his leadership pre-dated the last election though, with some TDs believing they would perform better with one of the rising stars at the helm.

However, Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney weren't ready. To make a move on the man who had kept a steady ship for so long would almost certainly have backfired.

The election campaign was a disaster. From the ill-fated 'Keep The Recovery Going' slogan to the 'whingers in Castlebar' and the 'economic jargon', everything Mr Kenny put his hand to ended badly.

As the results rolled on February 27 last year, many of Mr Kenny's colleagues half-expected he would step down.

It was a devastating blow but Mr Kenny wasn't finished. Having fought his way back so often, he still had some fight left.

Finding a narrative to allow him stay at the top of Fine Gael was difficult - until everybody realised the numbers didn't stack up.

And with the birth of 'new politics' came another rebirth of Enda Kenny.

He presented himself as the Statesman to once again guide the country through an uncertain time.

"Don't hit me with the baby in my arms," was effectively the message. A heave would have led to a second election and nobody wanted that. Not even Fianna Fáil, who were riding high.

A couple of weeks later, one source close to Mr Varadkar remarked: "New politics basically exists to keep Enda Kenny in his job."

He had survived again but many in Fine Gael felt he should "do the decent thing" and pass the baton.

Supporters of Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney hoped he would arrive into the pre-Cabinet meeting some morning and tell them he had an exit strategy - but it never happened.

The weeks turned into months and along came Brexit in June. We were told of threats to the economy and jobs - but the whole scenario seemed to make one man's job more secure. By appointing himself 'Brexit Minister', Mr Kenny had once again found a baby to hold in his arms.

By September it became obvious he was going nowhere of his own volition.

That was around the time Mick Wallace's bill on fatal foetal abnormalities was causing major tensions with the Independent Alliance.

The polls were bad for Fine Gael and some backbenchers have started to publicly undermine his authority. Yet there have been plenty of lulls over the past year too.

Reporters have become tired of hearing ministers say they want to allow the Taoiseach decide his moment - but they were being genuine. Even Mr Varadkar, who has been champing at the bit for Mr Kenny to go, believed he deserved to leave at a time of his choosing.

Now that peaceful transition of power is in question, but while the ministers were willing to wait, fearful backbenchers are not.

In Irish politics, there is inevitably one major crisis a year. They have varying degrees of seriousness, from water charges to the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar.

The Garda crisis is unusual in that it has had a second coming. Mr Kenny thought it was dealt with when he sacrificed Martin Callinan and Alan Shatter in 2014.

He installed a trusted ally in Frances Fitzgerald to clean up the mess and presumed Nóirín O'Sullivan would breath new life into the force.

But his response in recent days was a new low for politics. The extent of incoherent Dáil responses, not to mention an invented story, shocked even those who had long distanced themselves from the Taoiseach.

After Wednesday's polite but pointed parliamentary party meeting, Independent Alliance TD Kevin 'Boxer' Moran wandered across the Dáil chamber to offer his condolences to the Taoiesach.

"All these things come to an end. I'm nearly 50 years in the House," Mr Kenny told him. They say all political careers end in failure. Recent history here and in the United Kingdom suggest that's true. Think David Cameron, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.

Some observers might think this week that Enda Kenny's career is ending in failure. But actually, it's not. He has had a hugely successful career.

If he has one regret, it might be that he didn't pick his moment to leave when he had the chance.

Irish Independent

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