Claims to history all very well but Enda will not get involved in mere debates

Wed, May 30, 2012, 01:00


Gerry Adams went to the GPO and invoked the memory of the brave men and women of 1916 who fought the might of the British Empire.

Then his party marched on the Four Courts to seek a judicial review on a finding of the Referendum Commission.

Enda Kenny went to the Merrion Hotel and met the men and women of American commerce to woo the might of their business empires. Then he sidestepped the media and crossed the road to Government Buildings, pausing briefly to throw himself in front of a bus.

It was a coachload of tourists from a cruise ship docked in Dublin for the day. The driver recognised Enda, who stuck his head through his window and said hello to the astonished passengers. (Once they realised he wasn’t trying to hijack them and was, in fact, the Irish prime minister.) An hour earlier, on O’Connell Street, Gerry pitched up on the traffic island opposite the GPO, where more people from the cruise ship were wandering around. They were delighted to see him when it was explained who he was.

“He’s one of the rebels, right?” said an American man, whipping out his camcorder. Members of the overseas media were quite taken by the symbolism of the place chosen by the Sinn Féin leader for his last media event of the referendum campaign. One asked him to explain its importance and Gerry was only too happy to oblige. “The building behind us is the spot where a republic was proclaimed and it was at a time when the British Empire controlled a quarter of this planet,” he began.

The local media, more concerned with getting answers to Sinn Féin’s stance on the emergency bailout fund, rolled their eyes. “These very brave men and women had a vision of an alternative way forward,” continued Gerry, warming up.

But what relevance does this have to tomorrow’s referendum? “Well, all of that has been given away,” declared Gerry. Enda Kenny “is saying that he wants to be the taoiseach who will give back sovereignty by the centenary of the 1916 rising”. We would have asked Enda how he felt about being accused of squandering the legacy of 1916, but he wasn’t doing much talking to journalists. He’s fed up with being asked why he won’t do a head-to-head debate with Gerry.

“I’m not going to be shoved around by Sinn Féin and I’m not going to give a platform to somebody, whom I don’t regard as a leader of the opposition, to propagate what are blatant lies and hypocritical assertions,” the Taoiseach thundered as he was waylaid on his way into the weekly Cabinet meeting.

When he spoke later to the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland, Enda was more concerned with events in 2016 than with what happened in 1916.

Barely had he begun his address than he was telling his audience, drawn from major US firms that have invested here, that it is his wish to see Ireland become “the best small country in the world in which to do business by 2016”. Campaign-hardened hacks mouthed “Bingo!” to each other as Enda, yet again, rolled out his best little soundbite in the world with which to do referendums. Whereupon he left his Minister for Jobs and Enterprise to deal with the question of the television debates.

“It’s not the Taoiseach’s job to provide a platform for political parties who want to promote themselves,” said Richard Bruton. “This is a deadly serious issue and I think the Taoiseach is treating it in that way.” He rejected suggestions Enda has steered clear of confrontation. “He has been campaigning vigorously. This is not a taoiseach who runs for cover. I’ve never seen a taoiseach more accessible, more out there talking to people about their concerns.”

The people from the cruise ship can testify to Enda’s accessibility. They seemed mightily impressed with him. What did he say to them when he went up to the driver’s window and grabbed his microphone? “He said ‘Is féidir linn!’ ” the tour guide told us before the coach moved off.

Back in O’Connell Street, Gerry shrugged his shoulders. “All I can say is that I was up to a debate with him.” Interestingly, he hasn’t exhibited any of the same enthusiasm over Micheál Martin’s many calls to go toe-to-toe with him. The Fianna Fáil leader is a good debater and has done well for the Yes side.

Enda, though, is Taoiseach. Gerry isn’t calling the shots. Taoisigh traditionally don’t get involved in televised head-to-heads and it’s never happened before in any referendum campaign.

A Norwegian journalist asked the Sinn Féin leader whether he wants to be prime minister and whether he hopes to join David Trimble and John Hume as a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“I am not at all interested about office or awards,” he replied.

History was never far from his mind. Asked about Sinn Féin’s commitment to Europe (they have never supported any referendum since Ireland’s accession in 1973), he said: “We are very, very strong Europeans. Ireland was working across Europe centuries ago . . .”

Back in Merrion Street, the reluctant Taoiseach was nabbed for a closing day comment.

“I’m always confident, but not overconfident. It’s the choice of the people now . . . No referendum or election is ever won until all the votes have been counted.” After that insightful analysis, he was gone.

Gerry Adams chose the site of an old battle in 1916 to put his final case. Enda Kenny chose the new battleground of Foreign Direct Investment to fight his.

What would the men and women of 1916 have made of it all?