Saturday 18 January 2020

John Drennan: Globetrotting Enda offers us hope of a future

His sunny-side-up optimism appeals to Americans who see him as a pastor in the Old West

It was once said of Bill Clinton by one of the sisterhood that if he was to be reincarnated as a member of the canine species the wandering president would be "one of those hounds that is hard to keep on the porch''.

The same could certainly be said of Enda Kenny, though for very different reasons to those which influenced that somewhat jaundiced view of Mr Clinton.

However, since becoming Taoiseach, Mr Kenny's wanderlust has accelerated to the extent where the Taoiseach was criticised, last week, for the sin of using the government jet 50 per cent more than Mr Cowen.

Such angst, however, in the wake of Mr Kenny's latest American triumph, resembles a classic case of the patented Irish politics of being penny wise and pound foolish.

One of the many serious consequences of the great Irish Disruption was the implosion in our international reputation.

Our swiftly acquired position as the fallen woman of the fiscal world did not merely have implications for our national morale either.

Instead Ireland's status as the Greece of northern Europe posed a serious threat to the ongoing willingness of multinationals to invest in a state that had acquired a reputation of being the Wild West of capitalism.

This devaluation of our reputation was not at all improved during the BIFFO era, by the further belief, that the sheriffs in this cowboy state were seen as being incapable and, worse still, in the aftermath of Jay Leno's comparison of Brian Cowen to a drunken barman, of consisting of a set of fools who spent most of their time in the saloon.

In these cynical times it is easy to suggest that the Gulliver's Travels-style peregrinations of Enda are without real value.

But in today's competitive world one of the most critical factors a small, open trading economy such as Ireland possesses is its reputation and Mr Kenny has restored that in spades.

Britain once had its 'Virgin Queen' and, whilst it is a leap of the imagination to portray Enda as the Irish Elizabeth I, in a sense when Mr Kenny goes to America, he is re-invented as the Virgin Taoiseach.

At home Enda may be viewed with the lazy, knowing eyes that a long term spouse reserves for a partner who is kept more for reasons of convenience, and the absence of any better alternative, than out of any real desire.

In contrast, when Mr Kenny goes to Washington he is reinvented as a fresh, vibrant newborn role model who, even for the toughest of American politicians, is seen as resembling some cross between Clint Eastwood and Mahatma Gandhi.

It undoubtedly helps that Kenny's political psyche is uniquely suited to the American mindset.

That 'sunny side up/morning time in Mayo/I can climb mountains'-style optimism that is greeted with such a jaundiced eye by a nation that has, when it comes to idealism, been bled white by the reductive politics of pragmatism, blends in perfectly with the soul of a state that still sees itself as being a new country.

When we look at Enda Kenny in America we focus on Denis O'Brien, and wonder what he might be doing there.

America prefers though to focus on the redemptive narrative of a broken country, rebuilding itself with the same grit and sacrifice that characterised the early settlers of their imperfect land.

Under Mr Kenny, to American eyes, Ireland is becoming a different sort of Wild West to the one that evolved during the fetid final years of the Ahern era.

It would be excessive to suggest that Mr Kenny is seen to be some sort of gunslinger but they do see Kenny as the equivalent of those reforming pastors who clean up the saloons and the rest of the excesses of BIFFO's brutish Tiger, by virtue of energy and determination.

There is also, in American eyes, an element of Charlie Chaplin's indomitable little tramp battling insuperable odds with great dignity surrounding the mannered nature of the Taoiseach's discourse.

We in Ireland will always play the 'Doubting Thomas' with Enda because we know him too well but the genuine affection surrounding America's relationship with Mr Kenny was most eloquently captured last week by the tough-minded Irish Times columnist Lara Marlowe.

One could not discover a more unlikely cheerleader for Fine Gael, let alone Enda, but in Washington as the Vice President Joe Biden spoke about his optimistic 'buddy' and Obama expressed his confidence in the Government's ability to "get Ireland moving again" and praised Ireland's capacity to punch "above its weight internationally" the tart Ms Marlowe spoke of a new concept called Enda-mania.

Astonishingly, in America, Kenny even crosses the political divide as Republicans praise him for his "tough decisions" whilst others note "there's something serious about him".

Fortunately for our collective sanity, and that of Vincent Browne, there is no danger within the colder environs of Europe, of Enda-mania replacing the current popularity of the Jedward twins as a source of hysterical excitement amongst the populace.

Rather like this state, Ireland's chillier European cousins respect Enda as a diligent, though limited, leader.

But, after some initial hiccups with Mr Sarkozy, he is at least creeping ever so carefully towards a position of mild respectability.

It is ironic to think that during the children's crusade of the innocents which tried to supplant Enda with Richard the lesser Bruton, it was seen as an insult when it was said of Enda that he would make a grand little Minister for Foreign Affairs.

But those who denigrated the ministry merely displayed their ignorance of statecraft.

In fairness when we were all millionaires under Bertie, Foreign Affairs might have been the best location for the duds.

But when it got to the stage where the defining image of the state consisted of that iconic photograph of a beggar holding a cup, as the boys from the IMF strode into town, we were in trouble for such images were not exactly compatible with the aspiration of a smart economy's export-led recovery.

From the start, however, with his visit to the White House, Mr Kenny in his curious little way, went to war with the concept of Ireland as a land of ruined monuments that was flirting with the phantoms of economic Armageddon and elegiac nihilism.

Intriguingly, when it comes to what economists would coldly term the added-value end of the diplomatic market, no one can deny that like Sally O'Brien and the way she might look at you, in dealing with the Americans and the Chinese, our broth of a Mayo boy appears to have the gift.

Of course, the Americans, and Chinese are quite aware Enda isn't the smartest jock in the diplomatic schoolyard.

They, like us, are aware Enda is not the man to send for if you are engaged in complex mathematical manoeuvres such as multiplication or long division.

Neither is he the sort of fella you might hire to treat a room of academics to a dissertation on existential nihilism and the collected works of Foucault.

But they do find something attractive about the affable, unthreatening persona of a bantamweight who is always prepared to punch above his weight no matter what the odds.

We don't know what the Chinese term for this quality is, but, Americans call it 'pluck'.

When it comes to a state that, after the Tiger years of caviar, must dine on the sawdust of humility and German sauerkraut for some decades, Mr Kenny is emblematic of a country that is securing the respect of the world because of its willingness to reject the Greek option and simply get on with it.

It is perhaps gilding the lily to suggest he has become a pilgrim Taoiseach for a penitent people, for Paddy never does genuine sorrow for too long. We do appear, though, to have begun to engage in the process of accepting a new reality.

Enda, the honest but game primary-school-teacher plodder, provides us with poor romance when compared to the fabulous Great Gatsby- style dreams Mr Ahern and his contemporaries embraced.

That, however, has only provided us with mausoleums.

Enda in contrast, by spreading a new realistic message to the world of a humbled state that is up for and willing to engage in honest graft, is beginning to offer us the possibility of a future.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss