Thursday 25 April 2019

Meet Enda Kenny, and then meet the other Enda Kenny

There are two sides to the Taoiseach- the one who has a pitch-perfect tone and the one who has a tendency to misspeak

INVITATION: Taoiseach Enda Kenny meeting US President Donald Trump. Photo: Gerry Mooney
INVITATION: Taoiseach Enda Kenny meeting US President Donald Trump. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eoin O'Malley

A man with one of the hardest necks in politics met the one with the thinnest skin in Washington last week, and it passed off without incident.

There were a couple of Enda Kennys that could have turned up to meet Donald Trump. Many were willing the Enda Kenny that can get the tone pitch perfect, as in his speeches on the Cloyne Report and the Tuam babies, to show up.

The audience at home wanted to see him stick it to Trump. We wanted him to raise the issue of the Muslim travel ban and America's declining standing.

Given Trump's famously thin skin and Kenny's previous comments about Trump's "racist and dangerous" language, that would have been risky. Diplomacy isn't about making yourself feel good, it's about getting something - which often means making those whom you don't like feel good.

Did the other Enda Kenny turn up? He turned the Paddywhackery level up to full volume. He didn't quite do a jig, but he looked as if he would be willing to if his "new friend" had urged him. Rather than standing tall, and looking to lure Irish emigrants home to a country that is much improved for Kenny's time in office, he looked for a deal on illegal Irish immigrants in the US, and a deal to allow 10,000 more to join them on E3 visas.

It is one thing to make it easier for young Irish to go abroad to pick up experiences before coming home, it seems extraordinary that the entire political system is so anxious to encourage its citizens to permanently settle abroad.

With this other Enda Kenny, we get the one who tends to misspeak. He invited Trump to visit Ireland, which given that Kenny almost announced this was his final St Patrick's Day trip in office, he certainly won't be in position to host. That will be a pleasure for his successor to endure.

His big announcement was to issue another invitation he won't be able to fulfil. His plan to expand the electorate for the presidency to include all Irish citizens, no matter where they live, gave the impression of a lot of other Kenny ideas; what seems like a good idea, made when he was looking for something to say, but made without thinking through the consequences.

Kenny issued an invitation to the whole pub to go back to his house for a party, knowing that he won't be home when they get there, or have to clear up the mess in the morning. Kenny has form here. His Seanad referendum defeat was based on the need to give the press something to report at a Fine Gael dinner. He could easily have later reconsidered. It was a pointless referendum that would deliver nothing, but he went ahead with it anyway.

It is also his propensity to misspeak that is the proximate cause of his imminent resignation. He got confused about the details of what he said or didn't say, and heard or didn't hear on the Garda whistleblowers. An election loomed. Fine Gael TDs looked doomed.

This was always Kenny's problem. He could be effective in set pieces, but fail when he was forced to think on his feet. He can make the Cloyne speech well, but last week got lost down a rabbit hole of Jesuitical argument in trying to distinguish between racism and racist language.

He never had Michael Noonan's ability to use homely language to reassure the public. Instead his interventions just introduced doubt or embarrassment. His stories, such the one of the man with two pints, didn't get us to realise that water charges were not a huge burden. They made us ask ourselves what he was talking about.

Behind the gauche exterior, Kenny has been an effective Taoiseach. It's seems hard to tell under the current minority Government, but most of those who work with him report a man whose public image is at odds with his private ability. They invariably describe a man who is a fair and efficient Taoiseach, who runs his Cabinet well, without trying to impose his views on others. In truth, he never had a vision for Ireland, other than being "the best small country in the world to…[fill in as appropriate]."

He delivered what was essentially a troika plan efficiently and effectively. He knew the politics, and usually got it right as to what was deliverable and what was not. On Irish Water - a major failure - he might have been too glic. He spoke from both sides of his mouth, blaming the EU for its introduction, and delaying its introduction, then making it hard for the Government to sell the policy in the face of organised opposition.

His ability to misspeak lost him support, as when he told an Irish audience that we were not to blame for the crash, but an audience of plutocrats that we all went mad borrowing. Every word-stumbling misstatement confirmed the view of him as a lightweight.

Despite our cynicism, Kenny can point to a genuinely positive legacy. No one took over a more difficult job. He inherited an economy in dire straits, with a potentially tricky coalition, in which both parties felt they had won the election. Economic growth has been real and sustained. The high levels of emigration were reversed. Spending has increased, though we can't be as confident of its effectiveness. In social areas some progress was made, not least on gay marriage, though he is perhaps guilty of sidestepping the more awkward issue of abortion.

That crucial political skill - to sidestep problems - may explain his longevity in office.

So what we got last week, as we have gotten throughout his premiership, was a mix between the two Kennys. The pointed way he spoke on the benefits of Irish immigration to the US can't have been lost on Trump. Kenny wisely chose to make the message palatable by wrapping it in shillelaghs and shamrock.

He did us proud, and embarrassed us at the same time.

Sunday Independent

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