Thursday 17 January 2019

It is ungracious not to give Enda Kenny his due - but it's a shame he wasn't a reformer

Taoiseach Enda Kenny leaving the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit at Dublin Castle yesterday. Photo: Barbara Lindberg.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny leaving the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit at Dublin Castle yesterday. Photo: Barbara Lindberg.
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The King is dead, long live the King. Whoever he turns out to be. Not long live the Queen, incidentally. Odd, that not one woman appears to be a viable challenger to replace Enda Kenny as taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael.

It remains a contest to be played out between men. This time, a generational shift has happened and the frontrunners are at the younger approach to middle-age.

Fundamentally, however, the beauty parade is the same as always. The choice continues to be narrow.

Irish politics always leaves me needing to check the date. It exists in a 1970s time warp. But new politics never did materialise under Mr Kenny's leadership - that was a hollow catchphrase.

However, credit where it's due. He took office at the most challenging time in Ireland's post-independence history, when economic sovereignty was lost, and succeeded in steadying the ship of state. No mean feat.

Unfortunately, he wasted the tidal wave of goodwill which swept him into power, with something too closely mirroring politics as usual and not enough reforming zeal, despite public appetite for it. As a result, his legacy falls far short of its potential.

And so to the leadership contest. Where are all the Fine Gael women, you might wonder? Frances Fitzgerald is compromised by the whistleblower scandal, although she may still run. As for Heather Humphreys, it's odd not to hear her name mentioned as a possibility.

For quite some time, it has been presented as a two-horse race between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. But are the boy wonders really so stellar that they deserve to be leagues ahead of the pack?

Mr Varadkar garnered young people's admiration during the same-sex marriage referendum, with that demographic figuring among those who admired his candour - it signalled his potential to broaden the party's support base. However, he has lost ground subsequently with younger voters over his equivocal response to the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment on abortion. Mr Coveney is sincere and hardworking in his efforts to tackle housing inequality, but some view him as a remote figure.

Whoever replaces Mr Kenny may find himself living on borrowed time, too. It is far from certain that a new Taoiseach will hold office for long. Much depends on his vision, and how persuasively he sells it to his coalition partners.

Micheál Martin says the confidence and supply arrangement will continue under Mr Kenny's successor, but clearly that's contingent on Fianna Fáil's shifting assessment of its electoral chances. The Dáil would have collapsed this week if the party believed a general election had the potential to increase its seat numbers. No wonder Fine Gael was galvanised into insisting Mr Kenny sets out his departure stall.

But party politicking is a distraction from the avalanche of challenges facing the State: crises in the health service and the gardaí, compelling needs unmet in the housing sector, a spate of public sector strikes threatened - and Brexit. Yesterday, Mr Kenny hinted Ireland may need EU funding to deal with the Brexit fallout, speaking at the All-Ireland Civic Dialogue in Dublin Castle. This is the first time such a suggestion has been advanced in public, and it alludes to an ever-expanding realisation that Ireland faces exceptional difficulties.

Clearly, testing times lie ahead, and Fine Gael has a responsibility to move swiftly to appoint a new leader in the interests of national stability. The party's welfare promotes the same approach, because Mr Kenny's successor knows neither the day nor the hour when a general election may loom.

Politics is a tough trade, as leaders regularly learn, but realistically the sooner Mr Kenny bows out the better. It would have been advisable to do it last year, after cobbling together the current administration.

Long goodbyes are a distraction. Ministers need to concentrate on their portfolios, but a lengthy Fine Gael leadership battle will divide their focus. A swift departure, then, is a service Mr Kenny can do on behalf of the State. The Trump schmooze on St Patrick's Day ought to be his last outing as Taoiseach.

As for his legacy - first up, here's what he wasn't: corrupt. He has a number of admirable qualities, among them his reputation as an honest and essentially sound man who was in politics for public service reasons. That ought to be acknowledged.

Under his leadership, Ireland exited recession and underwent an economic turnaround. He didn't keep all of his promises but he certainly delivered on the resurgence he pledged. Unemployment fell from 15pc to 7pc, a figure worth saluting. Average growth in eurozone economies last year was below 1pc, while in Ireland it is expected to be 4.5pc. Elsewhere, the interest rate on our bailout loans was reduced and the promissory note scrapped and replaced with a less onerous re-financing arrangement.

Overall, his achievements outweigh his failures. And to those who say resurgence automatically follows recession, or the Troika deserves all the credit, let me offer the reminder that success was by no means guaranteed. It is ungracious not to give Mr Kenny his due. He was calm under fire at a time when it was a desperately needed trait in a leader.

It's a shame he didn't have it in him to be a reformer. In the wake of his 2011 general election win, an enormous government majority at his back, he had a rare opportunity to imprint his legacy on the country. The Taoiseach didn't rise to that challenge.

Mr Kenny had his moments, though. He encapsulated the mood of the nation in his 2011 Cloyne speech, as the first Irish taoiseach to criticise the Vatican publicly for obstructing an investigation into child abuse - a serious infringement on Ireland's sovereignty, he noted. Arguably, it was his most statesmanlike hour.

However, he miscalculated on the scale of opposition to water charges, political cronyism wasn't stamped out, and robbing pension pots really was a low trick. To fund job creation in 2011, a tax of 0.6pc was imposed on private pensions, but the levy was not applied to public pensions or Approved Retirement Fund holders (among the highest income earners in the State).

Mr Kenny will be 66 in April and wears his years lightly.

It would be wasteful of his party if, in changing the guard, it overlooked his wealth of experience - including useful European contacts.

A confident leader might have the good sense to invite him to make a contribution behind the scenes, perhaps in Brexit negotiations.

Irish Independent

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