Enda Kenny has defied those detractors who have claimed for many years that he is not up to the job of leading the country. Or has he? His supporters claim that he has brought the country, and the economy, from the brink of complete meltdown to steady recovery and is now set to be the first Fine Gael leader to claim the title of Taoiseach in successive elections. Others say that timing and luck have played a huge part in his belated success after more than 40 years in the Dáil and that victory in this month’s poll is by no means certain.
Kenny never forgets his friends even when the going gets tough
Over the past five years, Kenny has displayed many of the characteristics that marked the career of his long-term adversary, Bertie Ahern, including the ability to shake off, or at least postpone, controversies that would have caused terminal damage to other party leaders.
His claim to have secured a significant debt write-down from his EU partners in June 2012 proved to be untrue. His siding with the ECB and the Bundesbank against the struggling Greek people who put the radical leftists of Syriza into power was self-serving and opportunist and arguably undermined any prospect of Ireland getting some early relief on its enormous legacy of banking debt.
His instruction to the Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Brian Purcell, to make a late-night visit to the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, leading to the resignation of both senior public servants and of his own long -time supporter, Alan Shatter, in mid-2014, is all a fog of obfuscation.
Similarly, the manner in which the Commission of Inquiry he announced to examine the purchase of Siteserv by long-time party supporter, Denis O’Brien, and other IBRC sales in mid-2015, was allowed to run into the sand due to its restricted powers and inadequate terms of reference bears all the finger prints of his senior handlers.
His outrageous and inaccurate remarks from Davos to Madrid to Paris on Ireland’s crisis and his government’s role in recovery have confirmed that he has not lost the habit of appearing the clown, unintentionally, at the most unexpected moments.
Enda Kenny also merits opprobrium for his broken promise to fix the health system, the failure to deal with a deepening housing crisis and the widening of the income divide between the richest and most vulnerable during these past few years.
Yet the stars, and international factors, including a strong dollar and sterling, unpredicted multi-national tax payments and the dramatic oil-price collapse have combined to see Kenny emerge as the architect of the fastest-growing economy in Europe and the cheerful bestower of a fistful of promises to simultaneously cut taxes, improve public services and recruit thousands of nurses, teachers and gardaí.
Kenny has luck on his side. He was fortunate to lose the leadership contest against Michael Noonan after John Bruton lost the 1997 general election to Ahern and before the 2002 poll when the Fine Gael vote imploded. Kenny survived with his lowest ever first preference vote in Mayo and Noonan resigned. The Mayo TD took over the party in June 2002 after a battle with Richard Bruton. Kenny was helped by transfers from his soon-to-be key ally, Phil Hogan, in the run-off and after the elimination of Jim Mitchell.
He faced into the 2007 general election as the blitz of his bizarre financial arrangements threatened to take out Ahern but failed to convince voters that he could do better than Fianna Fáil in managing a faltering economy. Once again, luck was on Kenny’s side as Brian Cowen replaced Ahern a year later and was engulfed by the banking and property collapse.
In 2011, after two failed heaves against him, the Fine Gael leader hauled his party to an historic victory and into government with a resurgent Labour Party, after the Fianna Fáil/Green administration collapsed in acrimony and the people gave it an unprecedented battering in the February election.
He merits opprobrium for his broken promise to fix the health system, the failure to deal with a deepening housing crisis and the widening of the income divide between the richest and most vulnerable during these past few years
There is no doubt that he has rid himself of the ‘Bertie lite’ tag that dogged him for years, although his closest aides still do not trust him enough to let him out on his own too often.
Kenny maintains a quirky, hail-fellow-well-met style that makes him seem like a country bumpkin but disguises a more ruthless political streak and shrewdness..
In mid-2014, Kenny publicly distanced his party from its key strategist, and his close friend, Frank Flannery who was embroiled in a financial scandal which erupted after details emerged of enormous salaries and other payments involving the Rehab charity and its senior executives. Flannery who had left the charity some years previously was still being well paid by Rehab for consultancy work which involved lobbying his colleagues in Fine Gael. He had a pass for Leinster House and free parking which the public was informed was being removed. It was a humiliating experience for the suave PR man and no doubt difficult for Kenny.
A few weeks later the pair sat down for lunch in Dobbins restaurant near the Dáil along with another old friend and party elder, the late Bill O’ Herlihy. Kenny expressed a degree of regret that Flannery had been shafted and was sorry that he had to withdraw his valuable Dáil pass.
“Don’t worry about that, Enda”, replied Flannery, or words to that effect, as he pulled the pass from his jacket pocket, to laughter all round. Kenny never forgets his friends even when the going gets tough.
Kenny was gifted a Dáil seat for Mayo west in November 1975 after the premature death of his father, Henry, from cancer. The young teacher was a newly appointed principal at Knockrooskey primary school near Westport and followed in his father’s footballing steps, playing for local club Islandeady. In September 1975, he played for the club, alongside his younger brother Kieran, in a county intermediate final against Ballinrobe. His team was accused of “punch and crunch tactics” by the opposition and the local media. However the two Kenny boys were absolved of any misbehaviour. As in his political life, Kenny surrounded himself with a few hard men who have taken the hit for him when the occasion requires.
At the 50th birthday celebration for one his of most loyal, and aggressive, allies, Kilkenny TD Phil Hogan in July 2010 in Bennettsbridge, Kenny made reference in his speech to another former teammate, Michael Lowry. The Tipperary TD and former cabinet colleague left the party when he was told he could not stand on its ticket for the 1997 election. This followed revelations in the McCracken tribunal that he had received enormous sums, and an extension to his home, from retailer, Ben Dunne. Despite ongoing revelations in the Moriarty tribunal about Lowry’s receipt of huge monies from Denis O’Brien for whom he helped acquire the lucrative second mobile-phone licence from the State in 1995, Kenny referred to the disgraced TD on no less than three occasions during the function for Hogan.
“Is that an application form I see in your top pocket?”, he joked as the 150 guests fell about the place.
As Taoiseach he shared the stand in May 2012 at the opening of the New York stock exchange with billionaire O’Brien who retains an unhealthy influence on politics through his wealth and control of a range of media organisations. Over the course of the long-running controversy following the publication of the damning Moriarty report earlier that year, Kenny never criticised O’Brien nor has he withdrawn his Dáil description of Lowry as “a man of integrity”. In the early days of the current campaign it took several interviews before he ruled out any post-election deal with Lowry or “any other independents”.
Not unlike his father, Kenny made little mark during his first decades in the Dáil, contributing on few occasions and then invariably only on issues of local import. Up to his early forties, he lived with his widowed mother Ethna at the family home in Derrycoosh near his electoral base in Castlebar, when he wasn’t in Dublin for Dáil business. He was known as an affable if harmless player who liked the city night-life until he settled down with his partner, Fionnuala O’Kelly, a former Fianna Fáil and then RTE press officer, in 1992. The pair had courted for several years and later recounted how they thought, wrongly, that they had maintained the secrecy of their cross-party affair. She worked directly for Charlie Haughey during those years and was close to the former Taoiseach. Haughey once told her that she did not have to leave the job just because she was going out with the Blueshirt, Kenny. Her Fine Gael connections include a cousin, former GAA president and MEP, Sean Kelly, although she has largely maintained a backroom role despite her deep interest in political matters. The family moved to Castlebar in May 1997 when she gave up her professional career.
Exceptionally, she was paraded with her husband after his leader’s speech to the FG ard fheis in advance of the 2007 general election in a not so subtle message to the people that at least one candidate for Taoiseach had a steady marriage. Ahern had recently separated from long-term partner, Celia Larkin.
He saw off local ‘Flynnasty’ rivals, Pee and his daughter Beverly, without ever becoming too vocal about the former’s tribunal, and her financial, travails. He had been responsible for delaying Flynn’s entry to national politics when the bombastic Fianna Fáil school teacher stood back from standing in 1975 knowing that Kenny was a shoe-in. He had to compete with Fine Gael rivals, Myles Staunton, Michael Ring and Jim Higgins for top dog, particularly after the Mayo constituency was redrawn into a single five-seater after the 1992 election. It has swung between three seats to two for either party with the advantage to Fine Gael in recent years. He also overcame a bitter local dispute with former party colleague and Castlebar councillor, Frank Durcan.
Between 1981 and 1987 he was largely ignored by party leader, Garret FitzGerald, who devoted just a single mention to Kenny in his voluminous memoirs although he briefly served as junior minister for youth affairs from 1986 until the government was replaced by Haughey and Fianna Fáil in the following year. Alan Dukes was equally dismissive of him although he appointed him to the front bench as spokesperson for the Gaeltacht.
When Bruton took over the leadership in 1991, he made Kenny junior minister with responsiblity for job training and industrial relations and later chief whip. He eventually became a cabinet minister, with responsibility for tourism and trade, again under John Bruton, in the 1994-1997 coalition with Labour and Democratic Left.
He famously rowed with journalist Vincent Browne during a Late Late Show debate in early 1982 just days before the government fell. Browne said to Kenny that he “never speaks at all” in Leinster House to which a humiliated Kenny replied that the journalist had refused an offer to visit his west of Ireland constituency. In more recent times, the dispute has resurfaced after Browne suggested on air that the politician go into a room with a bottle of whiskey and a gun. Kenny has refused to appear on air with him since. Browne has apologised for his indiscretion but to no avail.
His first cabinet job did not invite much controversy although he was touched by some difficult questions when, after lobbying from developers, he appeared to favour the RDS in Dublin for a national conference centre, a project which was subsequently shelved. He never declared any interest in the leadership until the contest with Noonan in 2000. At a time when his wife, Fionnuala, was the home-maker with three young children, his sudden pursuit of the top job took her and his close friends by surprise. His child-minding skills were later put to the test when a telephone radio interview was suddenly terminated after he could not manage to quieten his kids as they ran around the house screaming.
It wasn’t quite like Cowen’s Garglegate and, if anything, made viewers aware that behind the bland and pompous persona was a family man, however semi-detached.
The stars and international factors have combined to see Kenny emerge as the architect of the fastest-growing economy in Europe and the cheerful bestower of a fistful of promises
In government, he has managed to maintain cordial relations with his Labour partners over five years, at first with Eamon Gilmore and in the last two years with Joan Burton. It is well known that he found it easier to deal with Gilmore although they had their difficulties with Gilmore close to walking out over the resignation of the Garda Commissioner. He had not been informed that the Taoiseach was holding weeknd discussions on such a sensitive matter with key figures including the Attorney General. His relations with Joan Burton have been more strained particularly as the end of the five year term approaches and both parties seek to set out independent stalls.
Kenny came on board the Marriage Equality campaign despite his conservative, Catholic instincts and had earlier shocked many by his criticism of the Vatican over child abuse in his early months in government.
With the help of handlers and spin doctors Mark Kennelly, Mark Mortell, Hogan and others he has fought off many external and internal pressures to his leadership.
Frank Flannery prepared the detailed 21st Century Report that charted the party’s plan for success just months after Kenny took the leadership in October 2002.
“The current image of Fine Gael is wholesome, healthy, traditional and boring. It seems to belong to another age”, the document argued. It added that “a lousy party can succeed with a brilliant leader – the opposite does not work”.
Among the suggestions was the appointment of a fundraiser which helped dramatically to improve the fortunes of Fine Gael. Kenny also decided to reverse the plan by his predecessor, Noonan, to refuse corporate donations.
Fine Gael is undoubtedly in rude financial health as it faces into the general election, not least due to the work of Kenny’s backroom team. At 28-31% in recent opinion polls there is a strong chance that he can cobble together a new government with the help of various right-of-centre independents, Labour and others.
But there is none of the apparent certainty of just a few months ago and the serious issues that have arisen over the questionable “fiscal space” figures trotted out by Noonan in the first days of the campaign have given the party a wobbly start. Kenny’s statement that voters are not up to hearing financial and economic statistics thrown at them drew the inevitable response that he is not very strong on complex issues, himself.
It may be that Kenny’s success is built on sand and on the mistakes and misfortune of his political rivals. It may also be that he thinks the people love him more than they do. We will find out, soon.