Diarmaid Ferriter: There was more to Kenny’s success than luck

Kenny as Taoiseach mostly presided and chaired rather than initiated

Kenny did what no other Fine Gael taoiseach has done by winning a second consecutive term in office

Kenny did what no other Fine Gael taoiseach has done by winning a second consecutive term in office

 

When assessing the legacy of William T Cosgrave, the leader of the Free State government from 1922-32, historian Eunan O’Halpin suggested there were “greater talents, more ardent spirits, sharper minds” but that such an observation did not detract from Cosgrave’s achievements. He presided over a new state born into civil war and gracefully passed on the leadership mantle to the other side less than 10 years after the civil war ended. The State by then was stable and solvent, a significant legacy for Cosgrave.

Fine Gael, the successor party to Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal, did not hold the office of taoiseach again until John A Costello from 1948 -51, and again from 1954-57.

Costello, although he declared the Republic, was not regarded as a visionary who led the country in a distinctive direction. He did, however, revive his own party’s fortunes, offered a credible alternative to Fianna Fáil, and he also made a noble contribution to politics.

The next Fine Gael taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, was conservative in many ways, but also associated with steeliness during a troubled era, and with high standards that enhanced public life.

After him, Garret FitzGerald was markedly different in his ability and reach; an intellectual in politics with challenging and courageous ideas about Irish identity, but also indecisive.

Kenny did not come to politics in 1975 as a young man with a great hunger and vision; he was the 36th TD to occupy a father’s seat

John Bruton, the next Fine Gael taoiseach, suffered his share of political embarrassments, but has been credited by Paul Bew with weakening “the atavistic strain in Irish politics”.

How does Enda Kenny stand in their company?

Kenny did not come to politics in 1975 as a young man with a great hunger and vision; he was the 36th TD to occupy a father’s seat and in his own words then he was there to follow the footsteps of the popular sporting hero Henry Kenny: “the field is already ploughed”.

Lengthy political career

Of course, there have been greater talents and sharper minds, and Kenny was lucky in some respects – that he did not win the general election of 2007, that in 2011 he inherited a recovery programme and that for most of his time in office he had a Labour Party political mudguard – but luck alone does not sustain a lengthy political career.

He did much to energetically restore his party’s fortunes to the extent that it overtook Fianna Fáil for the first time. He presided over economic recovery and, in comparison to many other countries in recent years, significant political stability after a period of instability and humiliation.

He could be focused and optimistic but also remained obtuse, sometimes cack-handed, a poor debater with little confidence about policy detail, and full of waffle in the Dáil.

As Taoiseach he was mostly there to preside and chair rather than initiate. Behind the scenes, there were advisers, spin-doctors and “handlers”, and it was often difficult to see a real Kenny through them.

He avoided intervention on water charges, and approached the abolition of the Seanad in an arrogant, counter-productive manner by refusing to debate his own proposal

An instinctively conservative politician, he still showed the ability to respond to social, cultural and religious change, and empathise, as seen in his searing attack on the Vatican and its culture of secrecy and obstruction, his support for marriage equality and his dignified apology over the Magdalene laundries.

Bunker mentality

But there was an element of him being too cocooned, with a bunker mentality that was exposed by his acceptance of the ill-advised slogan for the 2016 election, “Keep the Recovery Going”, an economic narrative for an election that needed a societal narrative.

He avoided intervention on water charges, and approached the abolition of the Seanad in an arrogant, counter-productive manner by refusing to debate his own proposal.

Kenny has devoted his adult life to public service, and has never seemed motivated by material gain or been swamped by ego

Like many others, for all the talk of new politics, he also fell short when it came to the politics of policing. He was effectively ruthless in shifting the blame to others and showed every inclination to pull strokes. Notwithstanding, he survived much longer than most of his European counterparts, some of whom regarded him highly. He could be decisive at Cabinet and managed a variety of political prima donnas with some adroitness.

Kenny has devoted his adult life to public service, and has never seemed motivated by material gain or been swamped by ego. He demonstrated exceptional stamina, and if too much of that was devoted to launches and the donning of cycling shorts, that has more to do with how politics has evolved in a multimedia age.

History will record that he led governments during a period of great upheaval and crisis with the evenness of temperament to rise to that challenge.

He did what no other Fine Gael taoiseach has done by winning a second consecutive term in office, but as he departs the scale of inequality and the housing and health crises are also reminders of what was not done.

He insisted in relation to the mess he faced on assuming office that the country must never return to “the culture that pushed us over the edge”.

Whether his governments did enough to give meaning to that it is too soon to tell.

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