Charting revival of FG and enigma of its leader

 

EAMON DELANEYreviews Fine Gael: Party at the CrossroadsBy Kevin Rafter New Island pp256 €14.99

WITH ALL the books about Fianna Fáil recently, especially Ahern-era Fianna Fáil, it is a relief to read one about Fine Gael, and a revived party at that, poised for government with a leader tempered with preparation, according to the author. Really, this book is as much about Enda Kenny as it is about Fine Gael and Rafter charts the rise of Kenny from the early 1980s, against the background of the party’s up and downs. He makes a persuasive case for Kenny’s qualities: “his informal but direct approach to management . . . his work ethic and sense of urgency”.

It is surely unfair, for example, to criticise Kenny, as some do, for not having had enough ministerial experience since FG has not been in power long enough to give him the chance. It is also unfair to dismiss the possibility of the untested Mayoman rising to the task, since FG leaders, John A Costello, Liam Cosgrave and John Bruton, have all flowered in office. And there is no doubt about his achievement, with others, in reviving the party and putting it back at the centre of Irish life.

But, in an era which demands so much of a taoiseach, there remains a real issue about Kenny’s gravitas, imagination and ability to win respect. Rafter only partly acknowledges this, when he focuses on Kenny’s difficulty in translating his grassroots magnetism to a broader televisual appeal. There is a lingering sense of Kenny as “the country boy who got lucky” and cannot transcend his party loyalty. This goes to a central point about modern Fine Gael: what it wants so badly it seems to want for the party, as opposed to wanting it for the country. Thus, the aggressive quality of its opposition, quite in contrast with the more philosophical Fine Gael of the 1980s. Granted, FG is not going to risk the Tallaght Strategy again (which is a pity; it could benefit them) but do we really have to have the complete opposite, with Leo Varadkar, Fergus O’Dowd and James Reilly popping up like pantomime cops to attack just about every proposal of the Government? It is relentlessly negative and doesn’t suggest real nation-building or much beyond “we want to be in power instead”. It has also dated: on a recent trip to Brussels, I heard our MEPs describe how many of our fellow Europeans are trying to move beyond the adversarial system of party politics, with its shrill rhetoric and waste of energy.

Rafter has a deep grasp of recent Irish politics, and compresses the information in a highly readable manner. But like most books about Irish politics, his account is less about ideology or even big ideas, and more about process and events: the often small dramas that preoccupy weekend radio. This reflects the reality of our system. As he puts it, “Kenny has no interest in ideological debates and is focused on the twin factors central to winning electoral success in contemporary Irish politics – competency and personality.” But is this enough any more? Part of the dilemma of our system is surely this “big tent” formula with the public voting for one thing and then expecting another.

We talk left, but we do right. But if you try to be all things to all men, then eventually you will truly satisfy nobody – as Bertie Ahern discovered and as Kenny himself will discover, if he is lucky enough to come to power.


Eamon Delaney is the editor of Magill. His book Breaking the Mould: A Story of Art and Irelandis published this month by New Island