ENDA KENNY HAS sat on the throne in Fine Gael for ten years and he has over a year in post as our Taoiseach. While his party has seen an incredible renaissance during his tenure and the man certainly wears the gloss of office far better than his congested predecessor, Kenny himself is a spoofer.
In some ways he could be regarded as the jammiest fella in Irish politics: Kenny is a member of the lucky sperm club, born to a long-standing and well respected TD. When his father Henry died at the age of only 62, the 24-year-old Enda ran for his seat in what Kenny himself termed “one of the last old school by-election contests” when recalling it for Kevin Rafter’s book The Road to Power. The sitting Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave kicked off the campaign with a speech, which he followed up by handing Kenny a roll of notes and telling him to go buy everyone present a drink.
Kenny was one of life’s natural backbenchers, serving from 1975 until 1994 before getting the nod to his one and only full ministerial office prior to becoming Taoiseach at the Department of Tourism and Trade (then known to programme managers for the Rainbow Coalition as ‘the department of fun’.) Prior to that he spent a short period as a junior minister in Department of Education and Labour, but despite being an ally of Garret Fitzgerald he was passed over time and again for promotion.
If there’s one thing Enda Kenny has been good at, it’s dodging bullets. He surprised almost everyone when he ran for the leadership of Fine Gael after the fall of John Bruton, but lost out to Michael Noonan who went on to lead the party into its wipe-out election in 2002. Faced with a populist Fianna Fáil government that had fair economic winds at its back, Fine Gael was never going to win that contest with its brand of serious but nitpicky policies.
‘Kenny was seen as a terrible failure’
In the same election Kenny kept his seat by only 87 votes in the 14,527 between himself and his party colleague Jim Higgins on the eight count. Michael Noonan was gone as leader by sunset and Kenny again pitched his hat in to the contest, winning it as a compromise candidate in a broken party.
At the time, Fine Gael’s failure to win the 2007 election – at the height of Mahon, no less – was seen as a terrible failure, though the party comeback was impressive. Kenny himself just couldn’t match up to the Teflon Taoiseach in style or substance, being a poor debater and seen as somewhat shallow by the electorate. All things being equal, Kenny was the luckiest man in politics once again to miss out on that particular spin in the government Mercedes. Fine Gael hardly had policies that would have substantially altered the course of economic events in the country that followed.
There is great value in having a leader who is lucky, I think. You can’t discount it. But luck is best only when paired with skill, and on that front Enda Kenny has a patchy record. The man has a great emotional intelligence and is a long-standing constituency worker. These skills combined led him to picking the right strategy for Fine Gael to come back from the brink, with the new leader travelling the country to bolster and rebuild local organisations; with prior enemies brought together on his front bench; and most of all, Kenny ditched the high brow approach to politics and decided to play the populist.
‘He is regularly hidden so that he doesn’t have an Enda Moment’
That may not sound like a compliment, but it’s what kept Fianna Fáil in power so long. In 2002 one of the party slogans on billboards was “I’ll legislate for real social justice,” beside a picture of Michael Noonan. It was highbrow stuff and boring as you like. Fianna Fáil’s was “A Lot Done. A Lot More To Do.” (AKA, more gravy.) After the election Fianna Fáil slammed the breaks on spending promises, leading to the famous “Screwed By Liars” tabloid headline (proving how innocent we were during the Celtic Tiger, if that’s all that we considered getting screwed by Fianna Fáil to be.) Come 2011, Fine Gael had “The FivePoint Plan” and every hospital A&E department in the country would be spared the rod.
The debit side of Kenny’s skills account is not good, however, and particularly so given the qualities we need in a leader to deal with our present problems. We need a decisive, sharp and verbally competitive leader. Instead we have a chap who regularly gets hidden by his advisers so as he doesn’t have an Enda Moment, and who runs away from debates for fear of crumbling to pieces.
We know for a fact that some of Kenny’s own team don’t think he’s the man to be leading the country after the Bruton heave just prior to the election. Dissatisfaction had festered, and while everyone involved will tell you the issues were put to bed following the vote I’m not so sure that mental reservations go away just because Kenny’s side was better at marshalling numbers.
Twitter followers of the general election in 2011 will recall the #wheresenda? tag, which was recently resurrected for the referendum campaign. The Taoiseach’s popularity moves inverse to the amount of airtime he has to endure in debates, be they with his political opponents or protestors who, as he so eloquently put it, need a bit of work to sort themselves out.
‘This is not simply an issue of political optics’
Brian Cowen was a hell of a guy for taking you on a roundabout tour of the English language when answering a question, and Bertie Ahern tended to add some colour to the national discourse (“Throwing white elephants and red herrings at one another,” or “The boom is getting boomier,” anyone?) Enda Kenny is hardly much better when he is challenged. If you take the time to listen to his non-answers during Leaders’ Questions in the Dail you can almost see the gears moving in his head.
Kenny is fine enough when reading a speech, but when he has to go off message or react in a debate he falls to pieces. His failure to come out and debate in the fiscal stability treaty referendum was not fitting of the man who would purport to be leader of this country. Moreover, this is not simply an issue of political optics: If you think a debate on TV with Gerry Adams is robust, how about the closed door sessions with Mrs Merkel? The results (“What results?”) seem to speak for themselves so far.
The leadership style of his government also leaves a lot to be desired. Kenny chose the path of maximum promise while knowing full well that he could deliver very little (and in fairness, so did that other spoofer Eamon Gilmore). His ministers have been shooting themselves in the feet since Day One on issues ranging from A&E departments to new taxes. It was Harry S Truman who kept a sign on his desk, “The Buck Stops Here”, and I think Enda could do with one of those too.
Enda Kenny is a really nice guy. He has brought a freshness to the office of Taoiseach sadly missing in recent incumbents. But what Ireland really needs is someone who can fight our corner with intelligence and tenacity, in Europe and at home in his own cabinet. A man who has to be hidden away from the electorate, who can’t debate and who runs his show as chairman of an unruly board as opposed to chief executive of a tight ship is not the person to lead us through.
Fine Gael (and Labour) need new leaders, and our government needs to adopt a better sense of purpose and take control of our destiny in Europe. The first step to getting there would be having a leader who we are confident can stand up and brawl with the likes of Frau Merkel, rather than sitting quietly in the corner and waiting to receive a gold star in his copy book.