Wednesday 24 April 2019

Kenny staves off political oblivion in high stakes game of snakes and ladders to secure his legacy

Taoiseach Enda Kenny plays the bongos with the Afro-Éire group at the launch of RTÉ’s Cruinniú na Cásca at Dublin Castle this week. Photo: Tony Gavin
Taoiseach Enda Kenny plays the bongos with the Afro-Éire group at the launch of RTÉ’s Cruinniú na Cásca at Dublin Castle this week. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mandy Johnson

Legacies of departing leaders are not always obvious or sympathetic. But with the fullness of time, if it is deserved, public acclimation will fight its way through the contemporary fog of news and onward into the history books.

However appealing a longer term and lasting legacy is, it would surely be nicer for any aspiring retiree to be appreciated appropriately while they are still around to enjoy some faint praise!

Devising an exit strategy which combines public adulation and political peer appreciation is an elusive and ethereal notion, and it is an extraordinarily challenging thing to manufacture. That is simply because an affirmative political legacy is largely based on respect. It cannot be commanded, it must be earned.

In relation to our current Taoiseach's legacy and the fortunes of his Government, Enda Kenny seems immersed in a game of high stakes political snakes and ladders. One day he is up, and the next day he is down. Gaining international acclaim for publicly challenging Donald Trump one moment - and then being unceremoniously and relentlessly questioned by the domestic press for the date of his departure the next.

He receives public plaudits from the likes of former US president Bill Clinton from a pulpit in Derry and gets 30 million hits on YouTube worldwide. Yet paradoxically he is unable to attend any official event that does not involve the question of his leadership arising and eclipsing his Government's business.

And therein lies his problem. It is impossible to keep the dressing room happy by only winning away matches. As he swings between international highs and domestic lows, he cannot maintain anything other than pure political paralysis.

By any standards, the worldwide recognition that our Taoiseach received for a speech on immigration issues was deserved and impressive. Avoiding an ugly encounter in Washington, Mr Kenny behaved courteously towards his host. Nevertheless he deftly delivered some cutting blows about important principles in relation to immigration. The positive press he eventually garnered from his St Patrick's Day outing has provided him with some room to manoeuvre back home. However, the principle that a leader's exit should remain in sight but out of reach was abandoned long ago.

The weekly deadlines that Mr Kenny fixes and changes are becoming embarrassing. Moreover they threaten to tarnish his eventual departure and his legacy with an increasing danger that the national narrative will lapse into "Oh for God sake, please just go".

While his attempt at clinging to the top becomes slightly unedifying from the outside, it seems that he cares not one jot. Sure, why would he?

For him every day in office staves off political oblivion. It also increases the pressure on would-be contenders who must be mindful not to slip down the rankings in the upcoming leadership contest.

Because of Mr Kenny's inimitable capacity to absorb criticism and ignore press negativity, prospective candidates for the FG leadership contest are forced to traverse an inheritance path paved with uncertainty.

His former critics from within his party are now displaying a nervousness, or perhaps even a fear, of their master by allowing this to continue. It serves to demonstrate once again the fearful central control that has come to define Mr Kenny's leadership. Combining his unique management style with the harmless back slapping, yarn telling panache of Darby O'Gill does not make it any less insidious.

He is presiding over a Government which has misfortune so prolonged that it no longer evokes pity, it merely arouses irritation. For now the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party is content to allow it to continue.

The public, however, is tiring of it as evidenced in opinion polls that show Mr Kenny's personal satisfaction rating has plummeted significantly.

Contenders browbeaten, he continues to survive cloaked in the security blanket of Brexit, and Northern Ireland. Those two issues, coupled with his reputed armoury of 'best mates' over at the EU Council in Europe, make it impossible for him to go now he claims.

The Taoiseach's latest determination to remain at the helm until after the EU summit on April 29 (during which the EU leaders will discuss their strategy on Brexit) suggest to some that it is just too hard for him to leave it all behind.

According to Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, however, other EU leaders would need to invest in enough smelling salts to fill an EU wine lake to recover from the "shock" were Mr Kenny to depart. He contends that by Mr Kenny remaining in his position we will ensure that our "friends" around the EU leadership table will help protect Ireland's interest at all costs. Excuse me if I don't hold my breath for European support.

The reality of those around the EU Council table is that they have only one interest, and it is their own. If there was a national anthem for the European collective it would only have three simple lyrics, 'moi, moi, moi'.

There is no "we" in Europe, it is only "us" and "them". They do not care who we send. New connections are made more frequently in the EU than the Russians and American tap each other's phones.

Our Taoiseach does have a very strong place in Europe however; he is by no means essential but he is respected. He should use his final months wisely to affect some significant progress for us on Brexit. In doing so he would also protect his own legacy.

Firstly, he could create a Brexit minister, in doing this he would immediately lessen a significant burden on his successor. In addition, it would provide indigenous industry and the public with more reassurance that the Government are taking the issue extremely seriously. In terms of international representation on the matter we would have a senior member of Government exclusively out in the world protecting our interests and promoting our businesses.

Irish Independent

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