Sunday 15 December 2019

John Drennan: Enigmatic Enda, the real Teflon Taoiseach

The Fine Gael leader has so far been a lucky general but there are tougher battles ahead, warns John Drennan

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY: Taoiseach Enda Kenny 'has been a magnet for the stardust of decisive amiablity previously associated with Ronald Reagan'
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY: Taoiseach Enda Kenny 'has been a magnet for the stardust of decisive amiablity previously associated with Ronald Reagan'

It is strange but true that all successful politicians are ultimately unknowable. Whether it was Charlie 'the Boss' Haughey, Garret 'the good' FitzGerald or Bertie 'the sociable loner' Ahern, inscrutability is as critical in politics as it is in poker.

Enda Kenny's happy-go-lucky public persona means he should be as easy to read as short-lived leaders such as Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Biffo.

However, the more we examine Mr Kenny, who is in his own way as much of a 'sociable loner' as Bertie, the more enigmatic a figure he appears to be.

It is a bit of a leap of the imagination to use phraseology like 'Enda the enigma' but the one certain thing that has emerged from the new administration is that Mr Kenny has not been the Taoiseach many thought he would be.

Instead of being daunted by the challenge of a job Brian Cowen once famously said he had 'neither the intellect nor the ability' to do, Kenny's sanguine ego means he has slipped into power with the ease of a man choosing his favourite carpet slippers.

In a profoundly depressed country he has been a magnet for the sort of stardust of decisive amiability previously associated with Ronald Reagan and has used it to create a political coat of Teflon.

Though the times are far harsher, in a manner that is unnervingly similar to Bertie, bad news does not attach itself easily to Taoiseach 'Lite'.

His ministers and advisers, alas, have not been quite as lucky but sacrifices do have to be made if the sun king is to continue to shine.

Recently, the golden thread of decisive leadership Mr Kenny has been spinning so effectively has started to unravel.

We should not be too surprised for the holiday season of July and August often surprises politically exhausted governments with tragi-comic ambushes like journalists in holiday caravans.

Mr Kenny last week was certainly experiencing the flip side of the poet Keats' famous claim that truth was beauty, beauty truth.

After the furore over the Taoiseach's Roscommon version of Gettysburg, Mr Kenny is likely to have a slightly more jaundiced view of truth.

But despite the visible delight within FF circles at the sight of catching a Taoiseach fibbing (allegedly!), it was hard to avoid the sense there was something of the mindless out-of-date politics of 'yah, boo sucks to you' surrounding the plaints.

One could understand their excitement as, for once, 'Slick' Micheal Martin could dream of resembling a real opposition leader as distinct from the sort of lonely echo one hears after the avalanche has flattened the mountain.

However, there was something Lilliputian about the horrors we experienced over ramshackle hospitals while the entire fabric of Europe was crashing in on itself.

The tinny nature of the Opposition's critique meant the Taoiseach was not too perturbed but increasingly people are starting to wonder if Enda Kenny's 'Teflon gene' has started to malfunction.

The Taoiseach has certainly began to resemble a man going downhill on a bike, who, after a confident start, has just realised the brakes are no longer working.

It was perhaps impossible to avoid having a man overboard over Roscommon but within Fine Gael far more questions are being asked over the triumph of the Mitchell Lite sans-culottes in the Presidential Wacky Races.

When the blueshirt good ol' boys stiffed Pat Cox, like TS Eliot's 'Macavity', Enda was a long way away from the crime but the damage had already been done by 'the enigma's' egotistical reluctance to see the Park being occupied by a pedigree Fine Gael bull in a China shop called Bruton.

Kenny's happy status as a lucky general means that, in spite of itself, the Government may secure all of its policy objectives when it comes to the bailout.

But it would be kind to suggest that a certain lack of finesse has been a feature of how the Government has dealt with our European partners.

Mr Kenny may have moved with his usual cunning to outsource the bailout debacle to Michael Noonan but a slight taint of failure has attached itself to a leader whose initial Jack-the-lad attitude to Nicolas Sarkozy saw him (and more importantly Ireland) experiencing far more 'Gallic' kicks up the arse than it deserved.

The handling of water and property taxes has been less than sophisticated while Mr Kenny has handed out a series of Hammer house of horror style hostages to fortune via the Taoiseach's no new tax increases stance.

The jobs budget was an inert irrelevance while there was something utterly self-indulgent about the Taoiseach's decision to give his former leadership rival a nudge off the cliff when the lesser Bruton hit the rocks over the reform of Joint Labour Committees.

This, however, was only one example of the 'Chairman's' struggles to control his unruly cabinet barons.

In the aftermath of the suppression of Bruton, 'the enigma's' main concern will be centred on his narcissist of a Justice Minister.

Like the little girl with a curl in her hair, Alan Shatter, when he is good he is very good and when he is bold he is very bold. The bad news for the Taoiseach is that so far the over-excited Minister for Justice has generally acted like a petulant fool.

'Enda the enigma' can now only hope that the reprehensible habits of the church and the spat with the judges will rescue the reputation of a minister who is running out of enemies to make.

In fairness the new Taoiseach has displayed plenty of acuity too. Nothing epitomised this quality more than his recent brief encounter with the bearded brethren of the trade unions after Jack O'Connor and David Begg donned the old fishnet tights and invited Mr Kenny back into the social partnership parlour.

In a ruthless and populist response Mr Kenny thanked the unions for their offer and made it clear we would be doing business in a very different way from now on.

A Taoiseach who has the very useful capacity to say hard things in the softest of fashions has won a series of other victories that were quite beyond the capacity of the previous administration.

Politicians' pay is now effectively off the agenda, the civil service mandarins have been partially brought to heel and semi-state pay and perks have been challenged in so far as it is possible to do without going into the offices with a gun.

These are not insignificant victories and once you get on a roll, no matter how small the wins are, they build confidence.

Seeing as the father of the house has served in the Dail over five decades, without ever revealing his hand, we may have to wait for some more time to discover if 'the enigma' is a charming chancer or a man who has 'balls of steel'.

Power, however, as Bertie discovered, has a way of stripping away all illusions.

Mr Kenny has always been a great man for engaging in the political version of running up the political touchline gesticulating to the manager to let him on the pitch to sort the other lot out.

The Taoiseach continues, even after Roscommon, to claim he can't wait to face a raft of tough decisions, but the bad news is that many of them are lurking around the corner in September when he must face the dismal spires of Croke Park, welfare cuts- and public-sector reform.

We'll know a lot more about 'Enda the enigma' when those battles are over.

Sunday Independent

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