Sunday 17 November 2019

John Downing: 'Time' is on Enda's side, but such praise can be short-lived

'Time' magazine sees Taoiseach Enda Kenny as competent, relatively
caring and, above all, pursuing the necessary tough policies to manage
the economic crisis
'Time' magazine sees Taoiseach Enda Kenny as competent, relatively caring and, above all, pursuing the necessary tough policies to manage the economic crisis
John Downing

John Downing

TIME magazine's latest front cover could oblige that venerable Irish political class, the 'begrudgers', to contemplate the dangerous prospect that Enda Kenny just might be a prophet after all.

Thanks to the US news magazine's reach, the Taoiseach, and by extension Ireland, will get a positive billing all across Europe in places where such coverage can do real and tangible good. Its European edition will be read in the dear seats at the front of aeroplanes, in swish hotels, and in boardrooms. It will do no harm at all to the prospects of sustaining existing overseas investment and it just might even help tip the balance in favour of new projects locating here.

Enda Kenny is portrayed as competent, relatively caring, and above all as pursuing the necessary tough policies. The report dares to suggest Ireland could be something of a crisis-management model for our EU neighbours.

The article notes that the Irish people have, for the most part, gritted their teeth in the face of austerity and not emulated their fellow EU citizens in Spain and Greece by taking to the streets in great numbers. What odds on that assessment still holding good after Budget Day in eight weeks' time?

The writer also muses that Kenny's positive image at EU level is, unsurprisingly, not shared by the home audience. It is very common for leaders to be lionised abroad and widely doubted and/or disliked at home.

We saw it with Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand through the 1990s. The further away from Europe you travelled, the more Thatcher was hailed as a champion of free markets, and Mitterand and Kohl revered as fathers of a new democracy in Eastern Europe. At home their long careers were on the wane.

It is partly about familiarity breeding contempt -- if not quite that of prophet never getting domestic honour. It is also about the permanent and intense focus of domestic politics on the immediate economic situation.

If you are Enda Kenny and lead a country which has one in seven workers on the dole, rampant debt, economic supervision by external powers, a busted bank system and many other economic joys, you need not expect too much positive domestic recognition of any kind. You will never buck a syndrome identified by Christ himself 2,000 years ago and get local prophet status.

But if the 'foreign papers' are saying somebody is good -- then the local interests, especially in a smaller country, will take a new look. Take the case of Bertie Ahern, if we're allowed mention that name any more these days.

Mr Ahern was losing by a ton during the 2007 general election campaign. Then he was feted at a House of Commons joint address in London and had Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell pop up on television to say what a great fellow he was.

Foreign praise was not the only reason he defied the odds and won -- but it was among the factors.

It may, however, put some context on matters to note that another great global US magazine, 'Newsweek', praised then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen in August 2010. 'Newsweek' noted that Cowen had "won the admiration of the international community' by dishing out harsh fiscal medicine.

So, 'team Enda' will be entitled to a small gloat this weekend. Verily, 'Time' is on their side, and that is a good thing. But beware one and all: foreign praise is a perishable commodity with a very short shelf-life.

In the medium term, such media items can also play to Irish critics who say the Irish Government gets ''pats on the back from the EU elite for imposing austerity on its people''. But these honeyed words are not matched by delivery of a practical gesture on Ireland's bank debt.

Political reality is far less attractive and only marginally helped by positive foreign coverage. That reality is that this Fine Gael-Labour Coalition has limped through a week in which they looked inept and divided. Labour looks riven and at sea as the reality of power without cash hits home to them.

To some within Labour this 'Time' magazine praise for Enda Kenny will add to their growing worry, already pointed up by Fine Gael's high standing in the opinion polls, that the junior party will pay the political price for a government dishing out tough economic medicine.

None of this paints an encouraging picture as Finance Minister Michael Noonan continues looking for €3.5bn to be taken out in the December Budget. We will look to a renewed focus and regrouping by this Government.

Meanwhile, a bit of positive coverage on the front page of a glossy magazine -- even an upmarket and big-selling one -- does not mean that Ireland has even begun to turn this corner of horror. But it is an engaging talking point and, at very least, it will do no harm at all.

John Downing's political biography, 'Enda Kenny: The Unlikely Taoiseach', will be published this month by Paperweight Publications

Irish Independent

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