Monday 20 May 2019

Nicola Anderson on Fionnuala, the rock upon which Enda built his career

Enda and Fionnuala Kenny at Lough Lannagh in Castlebar on the eve of the 2016 election. Photos: Gerry Mooney
Enda and Fionnuala Kenny at Lough Lannagh in Castlebar on the eve of the 2016 election. Photos: Gerry Mooney
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'I certainly never thought that it would ever go anywhere. I mean, it was a little bit of boldness, a little bit of fun. And all of a sudden you realise it's gone beyond that," Fionnuala Kenny once summed up the early days of her relationship with Enda.

Theirs was the unlikely Romeo and Juliet story across the old party line of civil war politics.

She, the loyal Fianna Fáil press secretary who commanded the respect of her boss Charlie Haughey through her shewd efficiency.

He, the flaxen-haired Fine Gael backbencher from Mayo.

Enda Kenny and Fionnuala O’Kelly on their wedding day in 1992
Enda Kenny and Fionnuala O’Kelly on their wedding day in 1992

Theirs was an unlikely pairing - but it has worked.

Fionnuala has proved the rock on which his career has been built - the first person he has called throughout his career whenever a political crisis has blown up, the steady captain of the ship.

On the day that Enda was elected Taoiseach in March 2011, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin remarked that Fionnuala was still remembered with fondness on their side of the Dáil. Kenny responded with a spiky barb: "Perhaps if she was still with you, you wouldn't be in the position you are!"

The tale of how he first spotted her in 1981 is well-worn. "I was speaking in the Dáil chamber and this apparition appeared up in the press gallery, hair flying, blue dress," Enda recalled. "And I said - now this I must see again!" He gave her a wink. "He winked up at me. I was mortified... I nearly fell out over the gallery, so I did," Fionnuala confirmed in an interview with TV3's Ursula Halligan in April 2007.

For years, they tip-toed around Leinster House, meeting in secret, although their relationship was widely known.

Fionnuala described the clandestine element as an "added spice". "It was almost like an affair, except no one else was involved. And it was patently obvious it was going nowhere," she said.

"It was off for a while, and I was seeing other people, and I found myself thinking 'they're not half as funny or as interesting' ... He kind of crept up on me," she conceded.

Both engrossed in their careers, theirs was a slow-moving romance.

Meanwhile, Fionnuala played a crucial role in Fianna Fáil's operations - throughout the 1985 local elections, the divorce referendum the following year, the February 1987 general election and subsequent referendum on the EU single market and the June 1989 General Election campaign - which culminated in a coalition with the Progressive Democrats.

If things weren't busy enough, there were three bloodthirsty internal heaves against Haughey's leadership in February 1982, October 1982 and February 1983.

Fionnuala remained good-humoured and efficient right through it all.

She was held in high regard by Charlie Haughey and not only got away with once throwing a file at him - but also managed to extract an apology from him.

In an interview with Matt Cooper in January 2007, she said Haughey had been 'very good' to her and was very good about her relationship with Enda.

"But I have to say I was also appalled when I read the reports of the Moriarty Tribunal," she said.

She admitted that she'd had her own suspicions and had asked others about the source of his wealth but was only told: "'Oh well, he did very good land deals in the Sixties and Seventies.' I suppose I was very naive," she said.

Things became easier when she left Fianna Fáil in 1990 to become head of public relations at RTÉ and the couple no longer felt obligated to hide their relationship.

Enda proposed to her in the summer of 1990 while visiting Inisheer, the most westerly of the Aran Islands, where his grandfather James McGinley had once been the assistant lighthouse keeper - as well as a renowned fiddle player.

Their wedding, on January 3, 1992, was front page news.

The couple managed to juggle their careers with the birth of their first child, Aoibhinn, in October 1992, and their second, Ferdia in July 1994. But after their youngest son Naoise came along in October 1996, Fionnuala opted to take a year's leave of absence from RTÉ but never went back.

It had been a tough decision but the national broadcaster had hosted four Eurovision contests in the space of five years and the commute by train from Castlebar had become a major struggle.

They had hired a full-time child minder and Fionnuala's father, Sean, was a hands-on grandfather, but the situation had become untenable. "If my mother had still been alive, I don't know if I could have done it," Fionnuala admitted.

'She was a woman who had to give up her job and made such sacrifices to put the seven of us through education. And there was guilt - I felt I was letting womankind down."

Fionnuala decamped to Castlebar permanently to bring up the family in their comfortable, two-storey home on the edge of a golf course.

But even from afar, she kept her hand in, with crucial, shrewd advice without which he would have been lost - his secret weapon and his greatest asset.

Irish Independent

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