Thursday 25 April 2019

Kenny's record will stand up to scrutiny

'Enda Kenny was rated by the Barack Obama White House, and by the EU Commission President Jose Barosso, not for any special intellect or skills, but as someone who was guiding the Irish economy out of recession.' Photo: Tom Burke
'Enda Kenny was rated by the Barack Obama White House, and by the EU Commission President Jose Barosso, not for any special intellect or skills, but as someone who was guiding the Irish economy out of recession.' Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

History will very probably judge Enda Kenny more positively than many contemporary commentators and even many of his own party colleagues.

He is by now Fine Gael's longest-serving Taoiseach, and while he appeared to lack the gravitas or intellect of his party predecessors, Garret FitzGerald or John Bruton, he represented Ireland well on the world stage. In fact this "unlikely Taoiseach" was often better received in Brussels, London, and Washington than he was at home.

On the crucial issue of the economy, things went from a slough of despond in March 2011, when Enda Kenny took office, to a surprisingly quick economic revival. Unemployment has more than halved on his watch while emigration has become immigration. With such economic progress, the hopeless mishandling of the February 2016 Fine Gael re-election bid will be pondered for many years to come.

In Mayo, the Kennys have been a political brand for the past 63 years, with Enda Kenny's schoolteacher and football star father Henry first being elected to the Dáil in May 1954.

They were loyal to Fine Gael and retained the voters' confidence across the decades. But for the longest time, the Kennys, father and son, were often decried as not doing very much bar being re-elected, and avoiding making political enemies. Yet those are skills which should not be easily dismissed.

Enda Kenny's first party leader and taoiseach, the venerable Liam Cosgrave, retained a lifelong affection for "Young Kenny", who won a vital by-election in November 1975 to shore up that Fine Gael-Labour coalition. But Mr Cosgrave's successors - Garret FitzGerald, Alan Dukes, John Bruton and Michael Noonan - were all slow to recognise his talent and give him any kind of preferment.

By the time he was elected Fine Gael leader in June 2002, Enda Kenny had been a junior education minister for a year and tourism and transport minister for a total of two-and-a-half years. John Bruton had belatedly warmed to Enda Kenny because he helped him to fend off leadership heaves and helped him become Taoiseach after a bizarre series of events in 1994.

But the stereotypical view of him as an affable underachiever was well-established when he shocked many colleagues by announcing he would contest the party leadership in February 2001 against Michael Noonan, who ousted John Bruton.

Good luck has played a role in his fortunes: he was lucky not to win the party leadership in 2001; lucky not to be on the Fine Gael frontbench when the party went into electoral meltdown in May 2002; lucky to retain his Dáil seat in that 2002 election; lucky as leader that he did not win the 2007 election ahead of economic calamity; and lucky that Fianna Fáil had a major public nervous breakdown to allow his party sweep the boards in February 2011.

But he also persisted through the nine years of adversity as leader to rebuild the fortunes of a party some saw as headed for extinction. He shrugged off media name-calling and the disregard of Fine Gael grandees. In June 2010 he showed steel many did not know he had by roundly defeating a leadership heave run by the key lieutenants he had chosen.

He was rated by the Barack Obama White House, and by the EU Commission President Jose Barosso, not for any special intellect or skills, but as someone who was guiding the Irish economy out of recession. With British Prime Minister, David Cameron, he had an affable working relationship.

He acquitted himself with an Irish EU presidency in 2013, taking the entire Cabinet to meet in Brussels as an opening gesture. He also stood up well to pressure on company tax from French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, at his first ever EU leaders' summit just one day after being elected Taoiseach in March 2011.

Enda Kenny dubbed himself a "Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic - not a Catholic Taoiseach". On his watch, minimalist legislation on abortion was put through, all of 21 years after the Supreme Court recommended it, and in 2015 voters endorsed same-sex marriage.

His excoriation of the Vatican in a landmark Dáil speech in July 2011, in the wake of a scarifying report on sex abuse in Cloyne, also stood out. But Enda Kenny was an unlikely "bishop basher" and he was more in tune with Ireland's increasing secularisation than leading the field in this regard.

Irish Independent

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