Monday 15 July 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Why is Enda Kenny's voice of experience not being heard on Brexit?'

While Ahern and Bruton have their say on Brexit, Kenny's views are not being sought, writes Philip Ryan

Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

It has been nigh on impossible to turn on your radio in recent weeks without hearing a chin-stroking conversation between one of Montrose's finest and Bertie Ahern on the latest machinations on Brexit.

The former taoiseach who, you will remember, managed to get through six years of his adult life without a bank account, has become a staple of the national debate as we look down our noses at our nearest neighbours.

The Mahon Report has been forgotten. The dig-outs have been forgotten. The extraordinary luck at the racetrack has been forgotten. The economic policies which ultimately led to the financial crash have been forgotten.

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So Ahern sidles into radio and TV studios to wax lyrical about the glory days of the Peace Talks, before wheeling out his latest opinion on Britain's decision to leave the EU.

And it's not just RTE which runs to Ahern for advice as our country stares into the Brexit abyss. Simon Coveney has been knocking on Bertie's door for guidance on how to deal with those awkward politicians up North who don't appreciate the Tanaiste's earnest approach to the Brexit and Northern Assembly conundrums.

At a media briefing before Christmas, Coveney was forced to distance himself from social media comments made by his press adviser, Chris Donohoe, who said the "reintroduction" of Ahern as a "credible instead of a disgraced taoiseach makes him sick".

"I think he understands the parties well in Northern Ireland and I have benefited from hearing his views," Coveney said in Ahern's defence.

Another prominent voice throughout the Brexit fiasco has been John Bruton. The former taoiseach is a regular in broadcast and print media, where he make some fairly obvious comments about Brexit.

Bruton also has the ear of Leo Varadkar, according to the Taoiseach's advisers, due to his "wealth of knowledge" on the EU.

Ahern and Bruton are undoubtedly a wealth of knowledge on international affairs, given previous roles and political achievements. However, there seems to be a reluctance within the upper ranks of Fine Gael to tap into another former incumbent of the Department of Taoiseach.

Enda Kenny had his faults and the Sunday Independent mail room would come under serious strain if we asked readers to send in their suggestions. However, chief among those criticisms would not be Kenny's performance on the international stage, or his lack of diplomatic relationships with other heads of state. While still cleaning the blood from the blades they stuck in his back, Fine Gael TDs would fall over themselves to highlight Kenny's reputation on the continent.

They would say Kenny's two central achievements in office were restoring, or at least paving the way towards restoring, the country's economy, and cementing Ireland's standing among other EU member states.

Fine Gael colleagues always talk about the unique relationships he developed with senior EU leader such as Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. The chairman of all chairmen, they'd say. The next EU president by a country mile, they'd add.

As far as Anglo-Irish relations go, we have come a long way from former British prime minister David Cameron personally wishing Kenny good luck ahead of the 2016 general election. I'm not sure Theresa May will be rushing to scribble some supportive words for Leo Varadkar ahead of the next election. And it's probably a long shot to suggest May will be still in office at that point. Perhaps it will be Jacob Rees-Mogg sending Varadkar some warm wishes.

But where is Kenny now? He's certainly not on RTE - and why would he be? It's not in Kenny's nature to push himself into the limelight. He's been burned enough times by his own broadcast performances to know that it is not wise to put your hand directly into the fire if it's not entirely necessary.

There is also a certain sense of decorum expected of former taoisigh. It would not be seen as sporting for a previous officer holder to offer a running commentary on a successor, - no matter how much they wanted to do it.

So Enda stands on the terraces, with his Fine Gael scarf around his neck, cheering on the team with the rest of the party faithful.

In the second week of this month, Kenny did make a public appearance - in Cambodia, where he met the prime minister and addressed the students of the national university.

The speech comprised a brief history of the EU and listed how Ireland has benefited from membership. Before a question and answer session with the students, Kenny joked: "I could speak for two hours on Brexit but I'd bore you to tears."

Maybe that's why no one in Government seems interested in hearing his views on Brexit. However, he clearly has something to say. Before Christmas, he spoke to the Limerick Chamber of Commerce. In a short video uploaded by the chamber, Kenny said the EU was "rock solid" behind Ireland and insisted it was up to the House of Commons to decide the next move. Not earth-shattering analysis by any means, but the comments were only an extract from a short video promoting the event.

In June, Kenny awoke from his political hibernation to receive European Movement Ireland's 'European of the Year' award. In his acceptance speech, he said he was appalled by UK politics which he said "lack credibility".

Advisers to Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney seemed bemused last week when asked if either politician seeks Kenny's advice on Brexit. Varadkar's adviser said they occasionally speak "informally" but that was about it. Coveney's adviser said she didn't know if the Tanaiste confided in Kenny, but said she would go find out. She was never heard from again.

Those close to Kenny say they are appalled by Varadkar's lack of interest in the former taoiseach's views on the EU and Brexit. After all, they argue, it was Kenny who ensured Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Border were treated as a special case in the negotiations.

"It shocking that they haven't tried to tap into his wealth of knowledge in European affairs," a source said.

Kenny was the architect of what would eventually develop into what we now call 'the backstop' - which essentially ensures there cannot be a hard border on the island of Ireland should Britain and the EU not agree on a trade deal.

Some people would say "sure, isn't the backstop the thing that's causing all the trouble?" and it is. Many those people are members of the UK Conservative Party.

(You could also argue that there should have been some discussions about what type of borders could avoid a return to violence, rather than categorically ruling out any type of border - but c'est la vie.)

However, Kenny did ensure Ireland did not become an afterthought in the Brexit negotiations - in the same way that little thought was given to the Border during the actual British referendum debate.

While still taoiseach, Kenny was also forced to slap down the aforementioned Bertie Ahern, who was pushing the idea of Ireland having bilateral negotiations with the EU during the talks. Imagine how that would have gone down in Brussels.

Last week, the UK's former Brexit secretary, David Davis, told a British parliamentary committee that Enda Kenny took a "more constructive approach" to the negotiations than Varadkar. He wasn't saying it for votes or show; it was an opinion on how the talks have developed.

Pride may be preventing Varadkar from engaging with Kenny on Brexit. After all, he forced him out because he believed he could do a better job.

Kenny may also be too proud to approach the Taoiseach with his advice. But at this point, Brexit negotiations are unravelling rapidly and the Government needs all the support it can get. Past grievances must be put aside.

However, there is something of an ageist attitude among the Fine Gael young turks towards their forefathers. Any time they talk about reshuffling Cabinet, it's always the older ministers, rather than the incompetent ones, they suggest should be sacked.

But experience is important and every organisation benefits from the wisdom of those who have seen more than those who have followed.

Sunday Independent

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