Tuesday 15 October 2019

Enda had many faces - I knew the patriot

People underestimated former Taoiseach Enda Kenny but history will remember him as one of the best, writes Ed Brophy

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: PA

Ed Brophy

Hurrying from the Tanaiste's office, I glance at my phone and see he's been on again. After years wandering the corridors of power, it's still surreal to look at your missed calls list and see "An Taoiseach" at the top.

Of course, it's not really me he's looking for - it's Joan. The day she was declared Labour leader in the Mansion House, we retreated to the Lord Mayor's quarters to call the Taoiseach as arranged so he could formally nominate her as Tanaiste. Except she'd left her phone somewhere and in the confusion ended up calling him on mine.

From then on, whenever Enda wanted to contact Joan, he called me. I never worked out whether he knew all along that it was my phone and he just wanted me to pass on whatever the message was. Or if he was operating under the misunderstanding that it was Joan's number he was calling.

I mentioned it to his staff, but the calls still came - always accompanied by a detailed voicemail. I often wondered if he dwelled on the fact that they were never returned. In a funny way, it perfectly summed up their relationship.

For many years, I was an Enda-sceptic, an almost unanimous view within Labour. In reality, we were - along with the majority of the media class - Enda underestimators. We just didn't think he had what it takes.

I even remember serious talk within Labour during the 2007 election campaign that Enda's scalp would be the price of any coalition deal. Luckily we both dodged that bullet.

To this day, Enda-scepticism and underestimation remain the dominant view in the country. Despite a legacy that will comfortably place him among our best taoisigh - and the first government he led among our most successful - people have never warmed to him in the way they did to Bertie before his fall.

There are large sections of the electorate who never accepted Enda as Taoiseach. Much of this perception is down to the "Paleo-sceptics" in the media, who, in the face of what the generals call "facts on the ground" about his achievements, have never got over their view that he's a bit of an eejit whose malapropisms, pratfalls and periodic gaffes somehow trump the record of regaining economic sovereignty, delivering a remarkable economic recovery and paving the way towards a more humane society.

Rarely have public and private impressions been so out of sync. In a way that's understandable - after all, there are many Endas. The Enda I got to know over five years in Government, and particularly during our last intense years in Government Buildings, was an eclectic mix of Mr Motivator, air guitar dad and relentless patriot. Above all, though, he was an optimist about the country, its people and its future. In a pessimistic age, this counted for a lot.

What most people who see only the public Enda don't appreciate is the exceptional temperament - the most crucial ingredient for leadership. At its simplest, it was a lightness of touch. Unlike Brian Cowen, he never felt oppressed by the hand of history on his shoulders at a time when the State was in peril. At its worst, this levity could morph into a kind of detachment in the face of imminent danger, most clearly on display at the height of the Shatter affair. But unlike his pal David Cameron, whose insouciance in calling the Brexit referendum proved fatal, Enda always had the ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

In Enda's case, the genius of his temperament boiled down to being able to endure almost any degree of pain. He would stay calm, unruffled and patient under intense and constant internal and external provocation. "What instrument of torture are they going to use on me today?" he joked to me one day at the height of the water crisis. But you also knew he wouldn't break, no matter how exotic that particular day's device was going to be.

More often than not the provocations came from us. While the conventional wisdom has it that Labour was rolled over by Fine Gael, the record shows we got our way on the big issues. Joan's priority after she became Tanaiste was to deliver a social recovery to complement the economic recovery already under way. Characteristic of her lifelong commitment to social justice and equality, she saw major increases in spending on welfare, social housing and free GP care as well as increases in the minimum wage as key parts of this agenda and they were all delivered by Enda, mostly over the dead bodies of his advisers.

However, one proposal went too far for Fine Gael. This was her desire to partially restore the Christmas bonus for people on welfare. They viewed it as rewarding the feckless and indolent, but Joan was insistent - the government needed to show it had a heart. So, on the morning of the 2015 Budget, she decided to time it out. There would be no Budget without it. Hours passed with her, Noonan, Howlin and Enda locked in the Taoiseach's meeting room, while I and his advisers sweated outside.

Eventually, Fine Gael caved at Enda's behest. Joan's steadfastness - the same steadfastness that often drove Enda to distraction - was one of her strongest political qualities. One of his was knowing when to compromise. To hell with Fine Gael's ideology when the stability and harmony of the government were at stake.

That was the nature of their relationship - transactional and matter of fact, but rarely warm. This wasn't for want of trying on his part, but she was immune to his charm. I would often bump into him after one of their tete-a-tetes and he would make to lay his head on my shoulder in mock despair or, on more than one occasion, suggest we take a trip to his medicine cabinet where, he reliably informed me, there was an excellent selection of anti-stress pills. That was how it went between us - he knew my loyalty to her was total, but he also understood that I could see his side of things too.

In reality, they were chalk and cheese. I always got the impression that Joan found his backslapping bonhomie slightly mortifying, while his eyes often glazed over when she made a point at meetings. Above all, she was determined to start afresh and this meant ditching the chummy relationship Gilmore had enjoyed with Enda, which she believed had in part contributed to his downfall. So her default position was at best scepticism and at worst distrust.

In place of a strong relationship between the principals, the respective back-room teams had to develop stronger links. They were tested to destruction on more than one occasion. Claiming credit for the government's successes was a regular flashpoint. When we negotiated the revised programme for government, tax was a focal issue. Enda's economic adviser Andrew McDowell pushed for cuts to the top rate, while our focus was on reducing the universal social charge (USC) for low and middle-income people. In the end, we did a bit of both.

However, in coming around to USC cuts, Fine Gael started to act like it had been its idea in the first place. (Something similar would happen with marriage equality, where Enda, in particular, went into full zeal of the convert mode.)

Joan was furious, so she called him out. First at an EMC meeting, where his advisers bristled with rage as their man came under sustained attack while biting his lip. Then, to reinforce her displeasure, at the next major jobs announcement, with Enda at her side, as she regaled the packed room that she made him see the light on helping low-paid people. His advisers went ballistic.

"So, if not for Saint Joan, that awful man Enda Kenny would have further lined the pockets of the rich," his chief of staff Mark Kennelly barked acerbically at one of our regular post-mortems. Ultimately though, we kept a lid on the inner turmoil that was a regular feature of our time in Government Buildings.

Joan's approach may have raised hackles, but her essential political point - that Fine Gael had a perception problem - came home to roost in the election and the whole strategy that gave us "Keep the recovery going". By then, of course, it was too late.

While the roots of that disastrous election went back to the Government's formation and beyond, even as we tiptoed towards it, their marriage of convenience was on its last legs. Joan's farewell wave on the steps of Government Buildings is the image people recall, but in truth things never recovered from Fine Gael's botched attempt to cut and run the previous November.

By then, their communication was dysfunctional. While Enda left the key meeting clear that he had stated his preference for a November election, Joan thought it was just one of the options on the table and no decision had been made. Then Enda told everyone else and the momentum became unstoppable. But stop it we had to, as far as Joan was concerned. So I was dispatched to pull us back from the brink. While Enda's advisers eventually conceded, their misgivings were clear. The element of surprise is one of the strongest weapons any government can wield, and we had just forfeited it.

In a funny way, Enda - like Joan and the government they led - may always be misunderstood. Not so much that he's an enigma, but that he did his best in desperate times when there was very little credit going around and now that he's going the country doesn't care about how bad things were back then.

It's likely that there will always be a disconnect between the public and the politicians who were in power during that period. Now we've moved into a new phase and suddenly both Enda and that government look like relics of a past much further back than 2016.

At least now the stress pills can stay firmly locked in the cabinet.

Ed Brophy is a partner with Accreate Executive Search. He was chief of staff to Tanaiste Joan Burton in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition.

Sunday Independent

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