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Like it or loathe it, history will be kind to Enda Kenny

After six years, the Mayo man has decided to make room for the next Taoiseach.

Image: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

PRESIDING OVER AN Ireland that legalised same-sex marriage, legislated for the X-Case 20 years after it happened, stood up to the Vatican and said goodbye to the Troika was Enda Kenny.

Like him or loathe him (and you’ll find people in both camps in every nook and cranny of the country), it is not a list you’d associate with the reluctant Taoiseach.

The leader of what is considered to be Ireland’s most right leaning party had to deal with an array of contentious issues in his six years at the head of government – matters that divided Ireland so that a succession of government had ignored them.

And forgetting the nuances and context we can give to contemporaneous reports, figures in history – including former taoisigh – tend to be defined by just a handful of moments in their lives and careers.

In 50 years time, what will be written about Enda Kenny in the record books?

There will certainly be a mention that after 42 years in politics, he is the Dáil’s longest-serving TD. But in the grander scheme of things, it is the big-ticket items that will – rightly or wrongly in our eyes today – see history deal gently with the Mayo man.

It may be the mere fact that such a conservative leader dealt with legacy issues that were long, consistently and uniquely kicked down the road in Irish politics that will astonish readers in decades to come. (Whether he truly wanted to or not is entirely another matter).

Same-sex marriage referendum 

22 May 2015 will always be remembered as a special day in Irish history. The people of this nation became the first in the world to allow for same-sex marriage by popular vote.

While the idea of equal marriage was pushed by the Labour Party, the personal journey Kenny went on which resulted in him campaigning for a Yes vote in the referendum was important.

Before he took office in 2011, it was understood Kenny was not in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. In the next couple of years, he stayed mostly quiet on the issue despite being chased by reporters and opponents for his views on the matter.

It is believed a change of heart came after speaking with friends and family (with Labour in coalition, there was always going to be pressure on him over the topic). One source said it wasn’t until Kenny met someone he knew that was personally affected by the issues did he start to think differently.

He later told the now-Senator Jerry Buttimer, “Let’s do this” and committed to campaigning for a Yes vote.

By 23 February 2015, he was delivering an endorsement for marriage equality to a Fine Gael crowd in Castlebar.

“This is about you, it’s about your right to say two small words, made up of three simple letters – I DO. For you, in your lives together, may they become your letters of freedom,” he told those at the annual party conference during his televised address.

Kenny then made headlines with a visit to Dublin’s famous gay venue, Pantibar.

Buttimer said he asked Kenny if he would join the party’s LGBT night out, for which the Taoiseach immediately checked his schedule and said: “I’ll be there.”

With the government’s full backing and public campaigning by the Taoiseach, the referendum passed by a large majority.

Although there were a myriad of factors involved in the win – most notably the role of non-political entities and their ability to engage people of all ages – it will be Enda Kenny’s government attached to the Marriage Act 2015.

Legislation for the X-Case

Another year, another social issue, another headache.

Abortion is something members of the Fine Gael party (and most other Irish parties) are uncomfortable talking about, never mind legislating for. While the party has recently been accused of stalling through the establishment of the Citizens Assembly, there was action in Kenny’s first term as Taoiseach.

The X-Case was one of the most controversial and closely followed legal battles in the history of the State. A Supreme Court ruling was left idle for 20 years until, finally, changes to the law were introduced. While some will say outside pressures forced Kenny to take action, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was signed into law in 2013.

It allows for women to have a legal abortion in Ireland if there is a risk to their life, including through suicide.

It didn’t go as far as many pro-choice people wanted, but neither was it popular among pro-life groups. Fine Gael also lost a number of high-profile deputies as a result.

However, the stick of ‘not legislating for X’ was and is no longer one that Kenny can be beaten with.

Source: SineadOCarrollTJ/YouTube

Apology to the women of the Magdalene Laundries

Not many politicians have broken down in Dáil Eireann. Kenny, as Taoiseach, did so on one occasion in February 2013.

Two weeks after receiving a report into the treatment of women who lived in Magdalene Laundries, he stood up to give a personal apology to the survivors – many of whom sat in the gallery above him.

With tears in his eyes, and a quiver in his voice, he addressed them by saying, “Let me conclude by again speaking directly to the women whose experiences in Magdalene Laundries have negatively affected their subsequent lives.

As a society, for many years we failed you. We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes.

“This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

On the day, the women welcomed his apology with open arms, smiles and tear of their own.

Since that day, complaints have trickled through about not enough being done to fulfill the promises made after that damning report by Martin McAleese. But the moment is recorded in history as a fine one for Kenny, the man who had already taken on the Vatican.

That Vatican speech

It was two years earlier and he was fresh in the job. A conservative. A Catholic. A known supporter of the Pope. It was a completely unprecedented attack that made headlines across the world.

But after the publication of the horrific Cloyne Report, Kenny stood in the Dáil with an entirely different set of emotions.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“Never before has a Taoiseach used such language in criticising the Catholic church,” David Davin-Power reported on that day’s RTÉ News.

“In time, Enda Kenny’s speech today may be seen as marking the end once and for all of any lingering deference in relations between the body politic and the Catholic church… and the language he used to criticise the Vatican was quite simply extraordinary and represents the strongest possible rebuke to another state,” he later added.

Kenny had told the Dáil that his words did not come easy, as a practicing Catholic but that the report tells a tale of a “frankly brazen disregard for protecting children”.

“The Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism …. the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.

The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.

“Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s ‘ear of the heart’……the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position being the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman Church was founded.

“The radicalism, humility and compassion which are the very essence of its foundation and purpose.The behaviour being a case of Roma locuta est: causa finita est. Except in this instance, nothing could be further from the truth.”

On the victims, he noted:

Cloyne’s revelations are heart-breaking. It describes how many victims continued to live in the small towns and parishes in which they were reared and in which they were abused. Their abuser often still in the area and still held in high regard by their families and the community.

“The abusers continued to officiate at family weddings and funerals. In one case, the abuser even officiated at the victim’s own wedding.”

The Taoiseach said there was little he could do to comfort those that were abused by the religious orders in Ireland and in the years to follow – akin to the Magdalene women – there have been quite a number of complaints about the function of redress schemes and treatment of survivors.

While Davin-Power’s prediction hasn’t quite come to fruition – and the fact that one of Kenny’s last acts was to officially invite the Pope to Ireland – the speech will get prominent place in any retrospective on his career.

Tuam babies

He repeated the trick just this year following further revelations about the Mother & Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway.

After the discovery of human remains were confirmed to be of babies, toddlers and young children, Kenny once more did not hold back the strong and emotive words in the Dáil.

It was yet another issue highlighting the Church’s power in Irish society, and how Kenny – despite his background – wasn’t afraid to take it on.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Navigating Ireland after the bailout 

Other than social issues, many will commend Kenny for seeing Ireland through the economic crash. (Many more will fight tooth-and-nail against that opinion).

Kenny took office in the midst of the economic crisis, winning the largest majority in Irish history in the 2011 general election.

The IMF were in town, Ireland had lost its sovereignty and unemployment was pushing 15%. His election promises were based on reform and getting the economy moving again. Once Fine Gael entered government with the Labour Party, it became apparent that the downturn was not going to be easily righted.

Both parties in the coalition have said that when the true scale of the economic crisis was revealed to them, it was “sobering”.

In order to get Ireland’s house in order, rather than repeating the giveaway budgets of the past, Budget 2012 was tough. Too tough for some.

The government introduced a 2% VAT increase, disability grants were cut, child benefits were cut, there was an increase in student registration fees, motor tax, petrol, diesel, cigarettes and a raft of garda stations were closed.

Measures such as the above continued year after year. But much of that may be skipped over as footnotes. The numbers will show that on leaving office, Kenny left an Ireland with a 7% unemployment rate and being dubbed “the father of the success story of Ireland in recent years” in Europe (by the EPP’s Manfred Weber).

On the other hand (and this should be emphasised greatly), the raft of austerity measures imposed on the Irish people, as well as the refusal to burn bondholders, caused long-term damage to Irish society.

While the history books might state that one of his major achievements was leading Ireland out of the bailout and getting the country back to a decent state economically, others might recall personal hardship faced by families living in hotel rooms and homeless people on the street. They will point to how the Fine Gael rhetoric of ‘Keep the Recovery Going’ was utterly ill-timed and a serious miscalculation in the 2016 General Election.

But, as we said, the history books can tend to cover over the cracks and present an easier narrative – an era or a person with a certain shine. How Enda is portrayed in the future – only time will tell?

Read: The man who would be king – is Simon Coveney on a well-worn path to Taoiseach?

More: From poison chalice to top of the table, is Leo Varadkar destined to be Taoiseach?

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