Monday 18 February 2019

Enda: the unlikely Taoiseach who rose without a trace

 

Enda Kenny. Photo: Tony Gavin
Enda Kenny. Photo: Tony Gavin
John Downing

John Downing

During his first election campaign, in October 1975, Enda Kenny marched into Ballinrobe at nightfall flanked by men holding aloft pitchforks with blazing sods of turf.

In February 2016, he opened what was very probably his last election campaign in a two-minute address to Dáil Éireann, followed by a message on Twitter with the ill-starred slogan "Let's Keep The Recovery Going".

This transition from torch-lit procession, redolent of Daniel O'Connell and the early 19th century, to 21st century social media, is just one of many illustrations of the extraordinary longevity of his political career.

When he arrived at Leinster House in November 1975 he was warmly greeted by his late father's friend, Fianna Fáil veteran TD Dick Gogan, who had carried James Connolly's stretcher out of the GPO in Easter 1916. It was just weeks after the death of Eamon de Valera and Irish politics was undergoing a big change of generation.

But even for some friends and supporters, Enda Kenny, the future "unlikely Taoiseach", rose largely without trace. In February 2001, more than 25 years after he was first elected to the Dáil for Mayo, he astonished many colleagues by announcing that he would contest the Fine Gael leadership, and by extension become a potential taoiseach.

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He came to politics via a dramatic by-election caused by the untimely death of his father, Henry Kenny, who was a junior minister in charge of the Office of Public Works. Like his father, he was a former principal teacher known to be academically bright, and he quickly learned the ropes, gaining a reputation as a "local fixer".

Beyond avoiding any major political enmity, and consistently getting re-elected to council and Dáil over the years, questions about what exactly he was doing recurred periodically. He had a famous clash on RTÉ's 'Late Late Show', with the acerbic commentator, Vincent Browne, in early 1982, which Kenny later recalled was due to being dubbed "purports to be a TD" due to his low number of Dáil contributions.

At Leinster House, Enda Kenny was popular across all parties. He occupied that "GAA free political space", built on his late father's status as a national football icon, and his own reputation as a good club player, holding junior and intermediate Mayo county football medals.

When he started courting his future wife, Fionnuala O'Kelly, the Fianna Fáil party press officer, in 1982 there were no objections about crossing party lines from party leader, Charlie Haughey, who had a personal liking for Enda Kenny and his father before him.

He did not drink for his first three years in the Dáil and was known to even advocate temperance initiatives. But he soon acquired a reputation as a party animal who liked "a social beer" - sometimes it was claimed his work suffered as a result.

Read more: A man of the times who butchered a golden opportunity

This active socialising gradually changed after his marriage to Fionnuala O'Kelly in January 1992, the subsequent birth of their three children, and finally promotion to government as transport and tourism minister in December 1994. But the reputation that he was less than serious about national, as opposed to Mayo politics, did persist.

On occasion Enda Kenny himself faced this down by saying he "took work seriously" - but he did not "take himself too seriously".

By the February 2001 party leadership challenge, he had been a junior minister for one year, and a senior minister for 30 months. Part of this could be explained by his Fine Gael party's long stints out of government. But in government or opposition a series of four Fine Gael leaders were slow to give him promotion.

He took over the party leadership after his rival, Michael Noonan, spectacularly bombed in the 2002 election which reduced the Fine Gael party to a record low. It was a slow and difficult slog - but he made gains in the 2004 and 2009 local and European elections.

In the 2007 general election, dominated by controversy surrounding Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern's finances, he was for a time looking likely to pull off a major surprise. But in the closing days Fianna Fáil reasserted control, in part due to a win for Ahern in a head-to-head television debate, and Enda Kenny had to be content with a considerable revival, and 20 extra Dáil seats, which maintained the party's relevance.

Yet doubt within Fine Gael about his ability, in part driven by simple snobbery, continued to re-emerge. Amid a major economic crash, the Fianna Fáil-led government's popularity was on the floor, but Labour and others rather than Fine Gael were benefiting.

A series of very poor media performances in 2010 by Enda Kenny fed into poor opinion poll ratings. A mere eight months before he was elected Taoiseach, most of Enda Kenny's key lieutenants tried to ditch him because they feared he was not capable of ever winning an election.

But he showed steel many believed he did not have to defeat that heave and go on to win his party's largest ever election victory in February 2011. Fine Gael had got an unheard of 36pc of the vote and returned 76 TDs.

When he took office as Taoiseach on March 9, 2011, the Irish economy was on the floor and economic sovereignty had been ceded to the notorious Troika of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank.

From his earliest days at Government Buildings, the affable teacher-turned-career-politician set a tone of optimism which suited his naturally sunny demeanour. For the greater part of a year he could do no wrong with good opinion poll ratings and a feeling that things might be very slowly improving economically.

The Troika left Ireland in December 2013, giving the Fine Gael-Labour coalition a small popularity boost. But delivering the same austerity as the previous government to a weary electorate for three years took a very harsh toll.

A lack of focus by government generally in early 2014, compounded by a series of unforced political and policy errors, made 2014 a year of disaster for this Fine Gael-Labour Coalition. Try as they might, they could not retrieve the situation thereafter.

The mismanagement of the introduction of water charges, rows over property tax and discretionary medical cards took a big toll on both parties. So did failure to deal with persistent Garda controversies which led to the departure of the Garda Commissioner, secretary general of the Justice Department and Justice Minister Alan Shatter.

There was a pointless and damaging row over failed efforts to boost the Seanad by-election chances of John McNulty.

Enda Kenny's government had a huge majority, and a steadily-improving economy, but it looked rudderless. At all events Labour had totally lost its audience through the failure to deliver on most unwise election promises in 2011. Fine Gael felt it could get back to power by stressing a very real economic recovery.

The year 2015 brought Enda Kenny better political weather. He was buoyed by good Fine Gael poll showings, but many felt he should have called an election that November rather than letting government run the full five years. But, driven by pressure from Labour, he demurred and the moment passed.

Ultimately, the buck stops with Enda Kenny as party leader and Taoiseach for his party's spectacular fall in the February 2016 general election. He signed off on a message and strategy which did not work - though it is less often commented that two frontrunners to succeed him, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, had key roles in campaign planning.

Mr Kenny's undoubted skill in getting back to Government Buildings as Taoiseach, heading a minority Fianna Fáil-backed Coalition, is poor compensation for Fine Gael colleagues. Granted, he is now that party's longest-serving Taoiseach and the only Fine Gael leader to win two consecutive terms.

But in longer and broader national terms, it is also clear that a huge and continuing economic turnaround happened on Enda Kenny's watch as Taoiseach. There is a vast difference in jobs and growth with where Ireland's economy was on March 9, 2011, when he was elected Taoiseach.

For that, and projecting a strong positive image of Ireland internationally, he can hold his head high. It is notable also that through a 41-year career there has not been even a suggestion of controversy about his personal or political finances.

John Downing is author of 'Enda Kenny - the Unlikely Taoiseach', published by Paperweight in 2012

Kenny's highs

2011 General Election Win

Fianna Fáil's extraordinary implosion did not guarantee Fine Gael success in February 2011. Enda Kenny had taken Fine Gael from the brink of extinction in 2002 and fended off doubts by his own lieutenants who led a botched heave against him in June 2010. The 36pc vote share and 76 TDs were an all-time record by any Fine Gael leader.

Economic Recovery

After the EU-IMF-ECB Troika handed back the reins in December 2013, Ireland's steady economic recovery continued on Enda Kenny's watch. The country was buoyed by international events - but unemployment fell from a high of 15pc in 2012 to just above 6pc currently.

International Image

After reputational damage internationally by the previous government, Enda Kenny succeeded in presenting Ireland as a country following prudent economic management towards recovery at EU and other international levels. Despite doubts at home he was well received in London, Brussels and Washington.

Kenny's lows

2016 General Election debacle

From day one, Fine Gael was in trouble as its slogan "Let's keep the recovery going" failed to gel with many voters who felt recovery had bypassed them. Enda Kenny showed scant knowledge of policy and compounded difficulties with a number of unforced errors. Fine Gael's 76 TDs in 2011 fell to just 50.

Mismanagement

Enda Kenny's 2011-2016 coalition mismanaged key policy areas including the introduction of water charges, cutbacks in discretionary medical cards, and especially a series of controversies in An Garda Síochána, and even small issues like replacing a senator.

The Perils of Parables

Enda Kenny has long been victim to his love of "folksy parables" which stretch truth and change the context to suit the occasion. The problem dogged him during his term as Taoiseach. Try his story about soldiers on standby to guard bank cash machines in case of currency crisis, and an "imagined conversation" with Children's Minister Katherine Zappone.

Irish Independent

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