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From reluctant Taoiseach to reluctant ex-Taoiseach: What is Enda's political legacy?

First elected over 40 years ago, it’s been some journey for the Mayo man.

enda 75 Enda Kenny on his first election to the Dáil in 1975. Source: Youtube/RTÉ

Enda Kenny is expected to resign as Taoiseach later today to be replaced by party colleague Leo Varadkar. This piece, which was originally published on 17 May, looks at what he’ll be remembered for. 

FROM RELUCTANT TAOISEACH to reluctant ex-Taoiseach, Enda Kenny’s career will go down as a truly exceptional one in Irish politics.

When he took the position in 2011 it was the first time Fine Gael had won power in an election in almost 30 years. His re-election five years later was the first time the party had been returned in its history.

Both these events followed a decade in which Kenny rebuilt a party that had been decimated by the electoral success of Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil.

In short, Kenny delivered for Fine Gael.

Throughout that time however, questions persisted about whether this success was built on Kenny’s stewardship of the party or in spite of it.

Not that his style was ever destructive, but a general attitude towards him amongst the public – that was at best indifferent – often forced Fine Gael into sidelining him come election time.

This internal battle between Kenny as an asset and a liability is one that has been at the centre of his leadership for the past 10 years.

It’s what led to the failed coup against him in the summer of 2010 and it’s ultimately hastened his now-confirmed departure.

Seven years ago, it was the fear that Kenny was the reason for stagnating poll numbers at a time when the economy and Fianna Fáil were in meltdown.

Now, it’s a fear in Fine Gael that the party could be caught out by an election without a new leader in place.

With a steely determination that surprised many, Kenny faced down that first failed heave. This time around, he’s also managed to face down would-be challengers long enough to leave somewhat on his own terms.

Kenny had said repeatedly that he would not lead his party into another election after two stints as Taoiseach, he’s now managed to stay on further into that second term than many had predicted.

Dynasty

Even though Kenny’s political career has defied convention in many ways, its beginnings very much fit the standard mould.

After the death of his father Henry Kenny TD in 1975, Enda Kenny won the subsequent by-election and was elected to be the youngest member of Dáil Éireann.

The elder Kenny was a former All-Ireland winning footballer with Mayo and was also a teacher and principal of a national school in their native Islandeady.

Enda Kenny didn’t reach the heights of his father on the GAA pitch but was nonetheless an accomplished footballer in his own right. A corner-forward for Islandeady himself, Kenny has also managed and coached the club and has been named as its honorary president for life.

For the first decade after being elected as a TD, Kenny kept a relatively low profile.

He only entered the national political arena when appointed as a Minister of State in Department of Education and Labour by Garret FitzGerald in 1986.

Fine Gael was removed from power in an election the following year but Kenny managed to hold his seat. He was therefore on the party’s frontbench in opposition and consolidated his position as one of its foremost figures.

90082097_90082097 Enda and Fionnuala Kenny at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 2007. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

It was during this period that Kenny married his long-time partner Fionnuala. The pair had met about a decade earlier in the corridors of Leinster House when she was working as part of Fianna Fáil’s press team.

As the first ever female government press secretary, it’s long been said that Fionnuala’s ambition rubbed off on Kenny and it’s certainly true that their marriage coincided with a period of political success for him.

Two years after they married, Kenny helped form the ‘rainbow coalition’ government with Labour and Democratic Left and he became a full minister for the first time in the Department of Tourism.

Following this three-year stint in government for Fine Gael, the party suffered a steep electoral decline and it is during this period that Kenny seized his chance to take the leadership.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton survived as Fine Gael leader until 2001 when Kenny surprised Irish political observers by putting himself as one of the contenders to take over.

enda 2004 Enda Kenny pictured during the European Elections of 2004. Source: RTÉ

Despite being a minister, he had never been regarded to be interested in the top job and his infamous pledge to “electrify” the party failed to convince. Instead, Fine Gael went for Michael Noonan and ploughed head first into an electoral collapse a year later.

The 2002 general election was among the worst in the party’s history and its loss of 23 seats sent it into a wilderness of opposition amid a booming economy.

Fine Gael’s front bench suffered some big casualties but crucially Kenny managed to hang on. In the leadership contest that followed, Kenny won out and took on the daunting task of rebuilding the party.

In the years that followed, Kenny hit the road and was widely praised within the party for the work he did on the ground.

Enda Kenny Start of the General Election Enda Kenny with wife Fionnuala during the 2007 general election campaign. Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

But his public persona remained relatively pedestrian and his first general election as leader in 2007 didn’t really capture the country’s imagination either.

The party’s US-inspired ‘Contract for a Better Ireland’ pledge didn’t really connect with the electorate and he failed to deliver any knockout blows in a TV debate with Bertie Ahern.

It meant the Drumcondra man won his third straight term as Taoiseach.

But the overall result proved to be a blessing in disguise for Kenny. His party closed the gap with Fianna Fail from 50 seats to 26, putting itself in a strong position as the economic storm clouds gathered.

kenny ahern Enda Kenny debates Bertie Ahern during the 2007 general election campaign. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Heave

As the economy began to at first slowly and then very rapidly unravel over the next number of years, Fianna Fáil were forced into implementing successive austerity budgets and the government lurched from crisis to crisis.

But during a time when the Irish public was perhaps more versed in economic matters than it has even been, Kenny’s handle on such matters was being questioned.

It appeared the party had allowed Labour steal a march in opposition and Kenny’s leadership was blamed as the reason why Fine Gael was not benefiting in the polls.

Source: Taoiseach Enda/YouTube

In an oral history of the 2010 heave previously published on TheJournal.ie, political journalist Deaglán de Breádún told Hugh O’Connell that Kenny’s leadership was coming into focus:

(Eamon) Gilmore was forging ahead by leaps and bounds and was building a huge reputation ostensibly around the place. Kenny’s stock was falling correspondingly.

But the haphazard attempts to actually unseat and replace Kenny failed and the disorganisation allowed him to take the initiative in the battle.

As well as publicly sacking Richard Bruton, a TV blitz from the leader and some backroom cajoling from both Kenny and Phil Hogan left the would-be conspirators with nowhere to go.

enda he Source: RTÉ

Kenny’s survival and his decisive actions in seeing off the challenge did a number of things for him.

Firstly, it ensured he’d lead Fine Gael into the coming general election. Secondly, it demonstrated a steely side that perhaps the public needed to see.

Seven months and a €80 billion bailout for Ireland later, Kenny was facing into his second general election as Fine Gael leader. This time, such was the political situation, he was almost certain to be Taoiseach.

Knowing the party was being presented with the biggest open goal an opposition could hope for, Fine Gael seemed determined not to blow its chance.

The frequently ridiculed but ultimately successful ‘Five Point Plan’ message delivered ad nauseam by Kenny during that period will almost certainly be the public’s greatest takeaway of Kenny the campaigner.

In part because it encapsulates a difficulty in connecting with the wider public on any level beyond that of a competent team leader.

But even if it was robotic, it worked. The plan’s focus on economic management came at a time when the Irish public were ready to accept any perceived misgivings – so long as the ship was righted.

Source: Fine Gael/YouTube

In office

Kenny’s first years as Taoiseach were perhaps both bolstered and hampered by the all-seeing eye of the Troika.

The periodic visits here by a joint IMF, ECB and EU delegation became a strange routine that Irish people became used to.

The government walked a tightrope between implementing the agreed austerity and appearing too deferential to Ireland’s bailout masters.

During this period, Kenny took some of the most direct criticism from opposition politicians for not arguing more vociferously for Ireland on the European stage.

download This photo of Enda Kenny with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy followed the Taoiseach for years.

The oft-repeated plea to ‘burn the bondholders’ became a frequent political cry each time the Irish State repaid a multi-billion repayment to unsecured bondholders.

Even the head of the Troika’s mission to Ireland was forced to eventually admit that he felt it was unfair to make Irish taxpayers pay such debts.

But Kenny and his loyal Finance Minister Michael Noonan persisted with this strategy and they will claim success on a number of fronts, foremost of which was the departure of Ireland from the Troika programme itself.

Deals to lengthen the period over which Ireland repays bank debts and the renegotiation of terms with the Troika were also heralded to save billions.

Added to this were unemployment figures that have continued to fall and the intangible fact that Kenny’s adherence to EU wishes may have built up credit for Ireland that is now much needed in Brexit negotiations.

enda trap Kenny pictured with then Irish football manager Giovanni Trapattoni in Mayo. Source: RTÉ

But all of this came at a cost. One of the Troika’s stipulations was the introduction of a water charge regime and the issue came to dominate the latter part of Kenny’s first government.

The opposition to water charges became the touchstone issue for the wider opposition to swingeing austerity and Kenny’s government bore the brunt as people took to the streets.

These issues continue to this day.

Anti-water charge protest Anti-water-charge protest in Dublin. Source: PA Images

There were other challenges too.

Early in Kenny’s first term the publication of the Cloyne report detailed and exposed how church authorities had dealt with allegations of abuse in the Cork diocese.

The Taoiseach’s strong response to the report and a Dáil speech in which he directly challenged the Vatican made people stand up and take notice, in Ireland and abroad.

The backbone Kenny had shown in extinguishing the heave against him was transferred to the Dail chamber where the Catholic Church was challenged by a Taoiseach in a manner not seen before.

The Vatican was even forced to respond to Kenny’s speech and his contribution remains the most powerful he made during his time as leader.

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

Referendum time

Despite overseeing the introduction of divorce during its previous stint in government, Fine Gael had long been seen as socially conservative.

But Kenny’s first government oversaw a number of significant social changes, one of which bore significant political costs for his party.

While Labour reasonably argues that the impetus for the same-sex marriage referendum can from their side of the coalition, Kenny and Fine Gael were nonetheless active and enthusiastic in ensuring it passed.

Kenny famously stumbled over a flower pot in 2012 as journalists pushed him on his views on same-sex marriage but once the party’s course was set in favour of marriage equality, Kenny was steadfastly behind it.

Some may criticise Kenny’s reticence to support full marriage equality but many world leaders, Barack Obama among them, have spoken about how their view on the issue evolved over time.

While Fine Gael’s support for marriage equality was clear, it was noteworthy that much of the actual campaigning for the Yes vote was driven by LGBT and rights groups rather than political parties.

Referendums are frequently used by voters to tell the government of the day how they feel and there was a sense during the 2015 campaign that advocates and politicians alike were keen to keep the issue to the fore.

Kenny perhaps partly fell victim to this in 2013 when the referendum on abolishing the Seanad was defeated.

The proposal was not a universally loved one by politicians and was very closely associated with Kenny himself. Its defeat left him with a bloody nose that would have been much worse had same-sex marriage not been passed.

Abortion is another social issue that Kenny at least partly dealt with in a way that the governments which preceded him did not.

The passing of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act legislated for the Supreme Court decision in the X Case, 21 years after the ruling was made.

90306816_90306816 Lucinda Creighton left Fine Gael during Kenny's first term as Taoiseach. Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Kenny’s determination to proceed with it cost Fine Gael some high-profile parliamentarians and again demonstrated his resolve. Renua, the party that was formed as a direct result of that debate, has also been floundering.

Furthermore, while the ultimate consequence of the Citizens’ Assembly are far from clear, there is at least a momentum that will likely see an abortion referendum next year.

Re-election

As already touched upon, Kenny’s re-election as Taoiseach was historic for his party, but it was far from clearcut.

The public’s electoral judgement on his first term as Taoiseach was to strip the party of 16 seats and to resuscitate Fianna Fáil just one cycle after they’d lashed them at the polls.

Kenny was visibly disappointed on election night and questions over the future of his leadership were splashed over the front pages again.

Again though, demonstrating a doggedness that once seemed alien but now seems characteristic, Kenny proved the doubters wrong

enda-gif-use Enda Kenny at the count centre in Castlebar. Source: TheJournal.ie

It took four nominations and votes before he was officially returned and elected Taoiseach for the second time.

In the 70 days between that day and the election day, Irish politics was transformed with a deal that saw Fine Gael govern as a minority party with the qualified support of Fianna Fáil.

The judgement on that arrangement is still pending but the one thing that is for sure is that Kenny has presided over it for longer than most expected.

The reluctance of his would-be successors to wield the axe shows both the respect for what he’s achieved and also the knowledge that previous efforts to unseat him have been met with canny resistance.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Such political nous is not what defines one’s legacy, however. The achievements secured as a result of it are.

Time will tell what Kenny presents and claim as his greatest legacy, but a record as Taoiseach of righting the ship when it was most required will surely be part of it.

Whether he did this successfully and fairly is ultimately what others will judge him on.

Read: Has the government delivered on its ‘ultimate goal’? One year in, here’s how it has fared >

Read: Enda Kenny had a go at a journalist for asking when he’ll step down as Taoiseach >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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