Enda Kenny has been Taoiseach since 2011 and leader of Fine Gael since 2002, a political aeon ago, and was first elected to the Dáil in 1975, before the flood. When he retires as he will next month he will be the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach, overtaking John A Costello.
He has been consistently under-rated primarily because he is not an intellectual and Fine Gael is a conservative, and often self-righteous, party that dices with dourness, so it amuses some to ridicule its leaders.
He has done some foolish things, like summoning in aid ‘Paddy’ a notional Irishman who likes to know the truth, and imagining a meeting with the minister for children, which has precipitated his demise.
But in 2011 Village predicted that he would be error-prone and let down the office. This he has notably not done. He has fulfilled his duties with dignity and gained international respect.
It is easy to complain about Ireland but our politicians have conducted themselves in ways that have allowed an increase in tolerance and avoided the rise of the dangerous hard right that threatens in a great number of other liberal democracies.
Kenny was decent to his colleagues, including his coalition partners, and when his imagination was let loose, allowed himself to be socially progressive on issues like gay marriage, abortion, the Magdalen laundries and Traveller’s rights. He leaves a legacy of social change that could not have been expected of his younger self, or his conservative instincts.
Most of all, however, he will be remembered for his role in what is touted as the turnaround of the economy which was bankrupt and under IMF management when he became premier. For example our public-debt-to-GDP ratio has reduced from 120.1% to 77%, and the unemployment rate from 14.8% to 6.6%.
Nevertheless he leaves a country where iniquity and poverty, including homelessness, are endemic, and where, because of an absence of political vision, the quality of life is gratuitously subdued. In particular Kenny has little interest in the environment or equality, especially equality of outcome.
On numerous occasions Kenny has offered his own limited vision: “that the country will become the best little country in the world in which to do business” (by 2016). However, the genesis of the quote was in 2011 where during the election campaign he expressed a vision that went beyond that, and indeed he has often repeated the extended vision. For example, before Budget 2012, Kenny spoke in a television broadcast of the “challenges we face as a community, an economy and as a country”. He explained: “I want to be a Taoiseach who retrieves Ireland’s economic sovereignty. I want to make this the best small country in the world in which to do business, in which to raise a family, and in which to grow old with a sense of dignity and respect”. The vision is fuller than the impoverished business-centred mantra but business remains central and it is remarkable how unideological, how workaday, the folksy formula that seems to represent his broadest ‘vision’ is.
Kenny promised a new regime of transparency but had to be dragged into it – through measures like whistleblowers legislation and the regulation of lobbyists. A plethora of tribunals has been his response to a wave of scandals, centring on Garda whistleblowers.
It is also a pity that the current partnership government which should represent a democratic turn towards accountability, in fact is fractious, inert and time-serving. He promised a new politics but instead we have carping and chaos.
However long Kenny’s service, it is a pity that new-found vanity has propelled him on a lap of honour that may fuel instability in the so-called partnership government.
It is said that leaders should be assessed for their temperament and their intellect. Kenny has a first-class temperament and remains untainted by allegations of personal venality. It is a pity that he did not ally his political talents to a vision, better still a progressive vision.
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