Friday 15 November 2019

Kenny serves his sunny side up far away from reality

If he wants another shot as Taoiseach, Kenny needs to bring the 'razzmatazz' a little closer to home

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny button their jackets as they depart for a luncheon at the U.S. Capitol after their meeting in the Oval Office as part of a St. Patrick's Day visit at the White House
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny button their jackets as they depart for a luncheon at the U.S. Capitol after their meeting in the Oval Office as part of a St. Patrick's Day visit at the White House

Niall O'Connor

What is it about crossing the Atlantic that generates such a seismic shift in the demeanour of Taoiseach Enda Kenny?

His whistlestop tour of the US over the St Patrick's week reminded me of the bustle and energy that captures the dying moments of an election campaign.

His actions Stateside carry razzmatazz. He oozes charisma and vigour; pumping adrenaline like a surfer riding the crest of a wave. He is thousands of miles from Castlebar, the town where his political career began, and yet Kenny appears more at home than ever.

Those who know Kenny well insist his US personality is anything but a facade. If there's one thing he's good at, they say, it's being able to illustrate that the pastures back home are a lot greener than they once were.

Kenny is not like his predecessor Brian Cowen. And he is not flying the tricolour overseas at a time when Ireland is being ridiculed or pitied for being in an economic abyss. Kenny knows this fact well, and he makes damn sure the Yanks do too.

Maybe the Taoiseach has taken a particular liking to playing the role of poster boy when he is abroad. On at least seven occasions, during engagements in Atlanta, Texas and Washington, Kenny reminded people that Ireland is no longer on the naughty step.

Quite the contrary, he would claim with confidence, Ireland is now top of the class and intends to remain there for the foreseeable future.

Fastest-growing economy in the EU, double digit export growth and plummeting unemployment is "evidence" that the dark days are a thing of the past.

"Yeats's 'fascination of what's difficult' has long preoccupied the Irish," Kenny would say. But of course, the Yanks didn't need to hear about Ireland's shameful overcrowding crisis in our hospitals.

There was no point mentioning the tens of thousands of homeowners drowning in mortgage arrears, the 'retirement' of a garda commissioner or the John McNulty affair which brought out the worst kind of cronyism from a political party and its leader.

These are domestic matters and the Taoiseach, perhaps understandably so, is determined to leave them at home. Travelling abroad with the Taoiseach gives you a rare insight into the qualities he possesses, but which we so rarely see.

We saw a caring father-like figure, rather than a cold politician. We saw a man more than happy to listen to people who waited months to have that word in his ear.

There was a poignant moment in the crowded Atlanta City Town Hall when Kenny was approached by a little boy named Jack Caffrey. Little Jack's grandparents had emigrated from Clare in order to secure a better life for his parents and, in sooth, also for him and his siblings.

But for Jack, meeting the Taoiseach was special. "Like Winston Churchill, you're my inspiration," he said.

Kenny was dumbstruck, and for a moment looked like he was about to shed a tear as he placed his hand on Jack's shoulder.

The boy's innocence had unlocked Kenny's sensitive and affectionate side, and it was refreshing to witness.

And yet, there were moments during the visit when that side of the Taoiseach needed to surface again. But it didn't.

When Ennis man John Normoyle looked Kenny in the eye and spoke of his "dream" of marrying in Ireland, the Taoiseach switched back to his other persona.

For John Normoyle's dream will only come true if the country votes 'Yes' in next month's Marriage Equality referendum. The Taoiseach told John simply he hopes the referendum will be passed.

His response, albeit polite, was perhaps underwhelming at best. He appeared uncomfortable. It just didn't seem like Kenny wanted to enter a long discussion about the significance of next month's vote. The reason? Only he knows.

In his final address during his US journey, Enda Kenny spoke of his own political dream of being able to bring the tens of thousands of undocumented out of the shadows of "the red, white and blue of the star-spangled banner".

Without doubt, he means it.

But if he is to be given another shot at the Office of An Taoiseach, Kenny needs to venture more into the shadows of people's lives back home. The sensitivity and compassion he can display when abroad, appears to be missing when he returns to Irish soil.

Sunday Independent

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