Monday 20 May 2019

Ruthless Kenny no chieftain, but he took party and country back from the brink

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is stepping down. Photo: Haydn West/PA
Taoiseach Enda Kenny is stepping down. Photo: Haydn West/PA
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Enda Kenny is an unlikely champion of brinkmanship. When he took over the leadership of Fine Gael in 2002, the party was on the edge of relevance. Reeling from an election drubbing at the hands of Bertie Ahern, it was reduced to just 31 Dáil seats and the future looked bleak.

He set about trying to reinvigorate the troops, telling them: "There will be no talking down to members of Fine Gael. This is your party."

There was no eureka moment, but in 2004 Fine Gael out-performed expectations in local and European elections, winning five seats in the EU Parliament.

It was the first time the party had ever defeated Fianna Fáil in a national election.

Fast-forward to 2010 and this time Mr Kenny found himself on the brink of being ousted as party leader. The 'cappuccino club' led by Richard Bruton believed he wasn't up to the task of becoming Taoiseach - but the Mayo man stood his ground and won the day.

And then, as the country was on the brink in 2011, Mr Kenny was elevated to Taoiseach in what was effectively a national government.

He gave birth to the Celtic Phoenix, and just six years later we now have the fastest growing economy in Europe and are heading for full employment again.

At a glance, Enda Kenny should today be hailed as one of the greatest taoisigh in Irish history - but his legacy won't be that simple.

The 66-year-old led his party and the country in their hours of need - but few within Fine Gael or Ireland see him as a chieftain.

From the first day he arrived in the Dáil at the age of 24, he wasn't taken entirely seriously.

Fellow TDs saw him as a bit of a joker, and while he came to Leinster House as a teetotaller, Mr Kenny quickly gained a reputation for enjoying a party lifestyle.

In 1975, few would have predicted he could rise to the top while all those around him wilted.

Nowhere in the newspaper clippings is there any evidence that his colleagues saw him as a future taoiseach. Garret FitzGerald didn't rate him and through the decades the media has tagged him as 'gaffe-prone'.

It's rarely mentioned these days, but Enda Kenny's only Cabinet experience before becoming Taoiseach was two-and-a-half years in the Department of Tourism and Trade between December 1994 and June 1997. His office became known as 'happy valley' due to his good humour and the fact that the period coincided with plenty of good news stories.

It was suggested that Mr Kenny was "easily managed" by officials.

And while it might seem as if Mr Kenny has been Taoiseach forever, he was actually the leader of the opposition for far longer. Aside from raising morale, his biggest task after taking over the Fine Gael reins from Michael Noonan was to take on 'Teflon Taoiseach' Bertie Ahern. The then-Fianna Fáil leader once remarked: "I don't think Enda ever managed to lay a glove on me. He certainly never got a knockout punch."

However, the story of how he stayed at the helm of Fine Gael for 15 years and as Taoiseach for over six years suggests there's a lot more to Enda Kenny than jovial fist-pumping and quirky stories.

When necessary he has dispatched inconvenient partners such as Alan Shatter and Frank Flannery. He ruthlessly cut down the career of Lucinda Creighton and has taken the risky strategy of repeatedly sidelining his constituency colleague Michael Ring, who is desperate to hold a Cabinet portfolio. Time and again, Mr Kenny has shown a vicious streak that is needed to survive at the top of the political ladder.

As he steps away from Government Buildings he will point to the economic recovery as his greatest achievement. In 2011, he took over a country that had lost its sovereignty, its pride and its international standing.

And even though the Fine Gael/Labour Party coalition wasn't re-elected, he will claim its work set Ireland back on the path to prosperity.

If the test of economic leadership is an ability to restore confidence and stability, then he rates highly.

But while the country is very much on the up, a 2007 billboard promise to "end the scandal of patients on trolleys" remains unfulfilled. The housing market is once again in a mess and Brexit is looming large over every decision the Government makes.

On social issues though, the father of three has taken more than a few 'personal journeys' over the years, especially on issues such as marriage equality and abortion.

Back in 2012, he famously tripped over a flowerpot while trying to run away from journalists keen to find out where he stood on same-sex marriage.

Three years later, he was boasting that Ireland had set an example for other countries to follow with our referendum. "With today's 'Yes' vote we have disclosed who we are - a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people," he said, adding: "Our people have truly answered Ireland's Call."

He publicly flogged the Church in a speech that garnered global headlines after the Cloyne Report. Given his private status as a devout Catholic, that Dáil contribution will feature in any highlights package.

It was a reflection of the public mood that needed to be summed up by somebody who felt personally betrayed by a Church that professed to be about kindness and love.

There's no doubt that this country's attitude to such social questions has changed dramatically during the Kenny era - but Mr Kenny's attitude altered with the people, rather than him initiating the change.

The fact that he didn't stand in the way of that changing society shows why he was the right man for the job at the time.

Mistakes were made along the way. Plenty of them - but he'll take solace in the words of Liam Cosgrave, whose record as the longest-serving Fine Gael taoiseach Mr Kenny recently usurped. In 2011 Mr Cosgrave told him: "I'm an old man, but you have made me proud."

The outgoing Taoiseach will be proud of himself. His leadership might not be have been filled with glorious crowning acts but he motivated and facilitated.

Irish Independent

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